Jonathan Ames is making good being bad. Not very bad, just the kind that might shock a grandmother or exasperate one’s parents. Known for years in Manhattan for his column in The New York Press, Jonathan Ames is also the author of several novels, a performance artist,and an occasional actor. He is less well known for being an alumni of Indian Hills High School.
While a lot of Jonathan Ames writings may indicate otherwise, he loved growing up in his hometown of Oakland and comes back to visit often. But now, at the age of 45, Jonathan’s career is taking off with the premiere of the new show Bored to Death on HBO. The show is based on a short story by Mr. Ames, and the lead character is named Jonathan Ames. Mr. Ames serves as executive producer of the show which stars Ted Danson and Jason Schwartzman in two of the major roles. (Watch the official trailer)
It’s difficult to write about Jonathan Ames because Jonathan Ames has made a career writing about Jonathan Ames. Many of his novels and columns are in an autobiographical style, personal, emotional, funny and sometimes explicit. Jonathan Ames writing technique is often compared to that of the author Charles Bukowski who’s life has been dramatized by both Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon. While this reporter has a particular fondness for Bukowski, having been fired for using his work while teaching an adult literacy class, the work of Ames deserves a deeper analysis. What exactly is Mr. Ames up to?
Jonathan Ames may give the impression of a man stumbling through existence, but having teachers like Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton University offers the suggestion that there might be a method to his madness. The premiere on HBO of Bored To Death may be considered the lucky break Ames deserved, but let’s not sell the tall man short. As baseball’s Mahatma, Branch Rickey, said, “Luck is the residue of design.”
Throughout his collection of writings, readers can learn about about Mr. Ames’ youth, his adventures, his neuroses, his loves & losses, and the aging process in all it’s inglorious detail. He exposes himself unabashedly like a Rubenesque nude. There is laughter and melancholy to be found in following his travails, and ultimately a sense of absurdity. It is absurd that we are drawn into his world, and absurd that he shares so much of it with us. But perhaps this is the method to Mr. Ames madness, absurdity.
Absurdists are not, as the term implies, politicians. It’s a term used to describe a collection of writers who believe the search for “the Meaning of Life” is more important than actually finding the answer; if you do find it, it only applies to yourself alone. Contrary to the opinion of many, absurdists do not believe life has no meaning, they basically think humans are too stupid to ever understand it. Mr. Ames writings chronicling his life offer us no answers, claim no understanding outside his own, but provide us hope that life is more than the minutia of our daily existence.
The theater of the absurd can be found in all tragic comedies, and most comedies. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett based his famous 1953 play Waiting for Godot on the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. As the title implies, the characters are waiting…for meaning and distract themselves with mundane acts, examining their feelings, and conscious that they are not alone. Bored To Death gives us a title which evokes a similar feeling, but the main character responds by becoming an “unlicensed” private detective, riding his new profession like a Rocinante into the adventure we call life.
As the main character, played by Jason Schwartzman, becomes inspired by the mystery stories of Ray Chandler, it’s appropriate to follow that thread in the real Jonathan Ames. His tutelage under Joyce Carol Oates, who is sometimes compared to the author William Faulkner, gives us a straight connection back to Raymond Chandler. It was William Faulkner who brought to the big screen Chandler’s The Big Sleep with Humphrey Bogart, and Faulkner also provides readers with an abundance of detail and the occasionally grotesque insight into parts of human nature.
It would be pretty absurd to say that Jonathan Ames has the best laid plan of mice and men. And it would be absurd to say that he has a theory or formula for the success he has achieved. It is probably safe to assume, based on Jonathan Ames the writer and Jonathan Ames the fictional character, that the words of Faulkner apply well. “There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.”
Why all the pseudo-intellectual babble over a television show? With all the promise of digital television and ten thousand television channels, there is very little that may actually enrich our lives, touch us in ways that make us grow. It’s mostly a wasteland of canned laughter, formulaic stories, and other products intended mostly to numb us; help us escape from the real world of boring, mundane details. Bored to Death offers the opportunity to take that reality and inspire us, give us hope.