Jonathan Kiefer: The Last Book I Loved, What’s Not to Love?


whats_not_to_lovelargeSometimes I like to make myself depressed by reading other writers named Jonathan who are better than me. Lately it’s been a lot of fun/shame, what with Lethem and Franzen on the scene, not to mention the immortal Swift. But Jonathan Ames is different. He’s better than me in a way that doesn’t paralyze me.

With his essay collection What’s Not to Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer, Ames had me at hello. Or maybe he had me at “Then I was crying, going on about life and how everything is loss and how desperately I miss everyone who has ever left me,” from the essay “All I Had In Me,” which continues, “When I’m sober, I have no affect to my personality, but when I’m drunk, I’m this maudlin clown who loves everybody and laughs and then weeps and then vomits and blacks out.

Certainly I was his for the having by the time I’d made it to “Oy, Oy, Oy,” whose title derives from the name of the Jewish terrorist group Ames invented to “infiltrate organizations like the KKK and the neo-Nazis with an undercover, subversive agent–a worrier,” who “transmits profound anxiety and insecurity into these groups, destroying their confidence, Yiddifying them, and making them less prone to violence.

I should point out, to be sure you have a sense of Ames’ range, that the aforementioned essay begins like so: “I needed to get out of the city. Everything was becoming Mangina this, Mangina that. All people wanted to talk to me about was my friend Chandler’s invention of a prosthetic pussy.”

Most of my new favorite book’s contents first appeared as columns in the New York Press, an alternative weekly newspaper. Having worked as both a writer and editor of subjective alternative-newsweekly nonfiction, I am here to tell you how many ways that form has of being irritating and disingenuous, how hard it is to do well. Very many, and very hard. But Ames is a master. He makes it look easy.

It’s true that some of his subjects–compulsive sexual fantasies, bodily embarrassments, lashing social humiliations–are salaciously hooky, but never is the presentation mawkish or cheap. At any given moment there will be vulgarity and self-loathing but also a profound sense of the fundamentals and a beautifully light touch. He’s like the John McEnroe of personal essayists. Except that Ames doesn’t condescend, even to himself. Sometimes he’s so gracious it makes me cry.

What’s Not to Love? has three sections, with several essays in each. “Troubles” is followed by “Problems” and then “Difficulties.” Additionally, there’s a brief prologue and an epilogue. The book’s structure gives an impression of tidiness, which seems beneficial for literature so preoccupied with excretion.

I’d enjoyed Ames’ writing before, but it wasn’t until I discovered him lurking in a back room of Sex for America, an anthology edited by Rumpusmaster Stephen Elliott, that I decided I owed it to myself, and to Ames, to buy one of his books. (He’s written novels and other nonfiction too.) Why it then took me 13 months to do so, I don’t know, but now I think those months will count toward the large part of my life that I’ve wasted.

I haven’t lived as Jonathan Ames has. But I’ve lived as I have, and Ames makes me feel less lonely with it. By him I’m comforted to know what can be done with a name like mine.

Jonathan Kiefer lives in San Francisco. His movie reviews are collected at More from this author →