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Rise and Shine

Jonathan Ames' 'Wake Up, Sir!' is a dashing yet thoroughly wacky comedy

By Sara Bir

Writers, being the highly introspective types that they are, often write about writing. Perhaps this is because, for most writers, writing can be an agonizing, demanding exercise in tedium; for every sentence tapped out on the keyboard, there are at least five minutes spent picking at fingernails, gazing at the proverbial bellybutton and--the penultimate writing procrastination black hole known to modern scribes--playing computer solitaire.

Alan Blair, the narrator of Jonathan Ames' sprightly screwball novel Wake Up, Sir! (Scribner; $23) is all too familiar with this cycle. The 30-year-old Alan is in the midst of composing what he'd like to think of as "the Great New Jersey Novel," though he's spending more time losing his composure than actually composing. Aside from anxieties about his Jewishness, his health and his penis ("Wild Jewish sexuality must be an inherited trait, an evolutionary adjustment to shortened life spans due to pogroms, genocide, bad colons and general dislike," he muses), Alan's main cause of distraction is alcohol. As the book opens, we find him fresh from a failed stint in rehab, living with his elderly aunt and uncle in suburban New Jersey and, when not fine-tuning his computer solitaire skills, drinking solitarily in his room.

Writers--productive or not--get lonely, and to remedy this, Alan does a very unusual thing for a young, floundering alcoholic writer: he employs a valet named Jeeves. For those of you who neither pilfered from your grandfather's book collection nor watched Masterpiece Theater, Ames is giving an affectionate nod to P. G. Wodehouse's early-20th-century series of Jeeves and Wooster books, in which the stoic Jeeves was constantly disengaging his nincompoop charge, Bertie Wooster, from disastrous capers. These follies took place in a world of well-dressed young gentleman, eternal cocktail hours and gigantic estates in the English countryside.

Such a world is of great appeal to Alan, who wears his obsession for bygone eras of dandy but gallant gentlemen on his Brooks Brothers sleeve. Stable, collected and possibly not actually composed of vulnerable human flesh, Alan's Jeeves is everything Alan is not, and Alan finds great comfort in Jeeves' refined yet placating words of encouragement, which are typically along the lines of "Very good, sir."

After Alan's drinking overstays its welcome, Alan and Jeeves escape New Jersey to upstate New York, where Alan's beer-fueled libido sparks a drunken brawl and marks him with a broken nose. Once again, he and Jeeves must flee; luckily, Alan's aunt informs him that he's been accepted to stay at an artists' colony in Saratoga Springs.

Face pulverized and obscured behind a floppy hat and sunglasses, Alan rolls into the Rose Colony with the purest intentions of sobering up and immersing himself in his novel. Instead, he immerses himself in cheap white wine and immediately becomes fixated with a resident sculptress and her magnificent nose. Everyone at the Rose Colony turns out to be slightly loopy--and, in some cases, totally nuts, though Alan may be the looniest of all. In a beautiful twist of irony, Jeeves is the only one who keeps Alan sane.

Ames is probably best known for the hapless persona of his real-life sexual escapade "City Slicker" columns that appeared in the New York Press and were collected in the books What's Not to Love? and My Less Than Secret Life. In all of his work, both fiction and fictionalized nonfiction, there's an obsession on self that somehow manages to be endearing and familiar, a worst-case scenario of the struggle to reconcile innate goodness with the self-loathing desire to simply be shot.

There's an island of timelessness permeating Ames' writing. His narrators move through modern days and constantly distill them for the reader with what they perceive to be the lenses of yore: they yearn to be charming, to be dashing, to be loved for spiffy neckwear. But we know they're never going to pull it off, and ultimately that's why Ames' writing is so frustrating and yet lovable. As Alan says, "Live and don't learn--that's my motto."

It may not be the sunniest-sounding summer reading material, but there's a twisted jolliness propelling the tomfoolery throughout Wake Up, Sir! that both alleviates and intensifies its dark streak. All players of computer solitaire will doubtlessly identify.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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