Amanda's Reviews > The Extra Man

The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames
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Feb 18, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: book-club
Recommended to Amanda by: Fred Northrup
Read in March, 2010

When I moved to New York, fresh from college, double liberal arts degrees in hand and looking for work in book publishing, I ordered a subscription (The Weekender! Natch!) to the New York Times. Reading the Times every weekend was part of my idea of the New York version of myself, something I had mashed together from my just-post-college ambitions and my nervousness, and from reading novels about people in similar situations in the city. I imagined I would read the paper over coffee and a bagel on Sunday mornings.

Of course, it took me a week to read a Sunday paper — the Sunday Times is huge! And I was trying to read all of it for some reason. I do not need to read the automobile section, ever, but I tried to. The papers started to pile up, and after about six months, I gave up. The way things were going those days I was rarely even awake until Sunday afternoon.

We all have these sort of idealized versions of ourselves, constructed from things we see and admire/covet in the people around us, from what we see in films or TV, and from what we read. We affect mannerisms, we pick up words, we adopt entire opinions and forget they aren't our own. We convince ourselves of the verity of things that are at best half-truths. The kind of person that moves to New York, especially, has this optimized idea of what his/her self will be in this place; this place both attracts those kinds of people, and this place has such a presence in literature and film that we are supplied with plenty of models. Louis Ives of The Extra Man is no exception to this tendency; an exaggerated example, to be sure, but good characters need some exaggeration.

Louis, narrator of Ames's comedy of manners, strives to be a "young gentleman." When he decides to move to New York (the "old Times Square" version, circa 1992), he arrives thinking that he will stay in a hotel while he searches for a more permanent home, as this is what the characters in his Henry James novels do. He, of course, finds that in 1992 hotels in New York are prohibitively expensive or alarmingly seedy. Typically, Louis thinks the tweaked-out homeless woman on the stairs is an artisty musician: he is trying to force his surroundings to conform to his own notion of what they will be. So he responds to an ad for a cheap apartment on the UES, which begins his relationship with Henry Harrison: calls-it-in professor, unpublished playwright, couch-sleeper, Ethel Mermen dancer, platonic gentleman friend of older ladies. Louis so desperately wants Henry's approval and friendship despite Henry's practiced distance. Nevertheless, hijinks ensue involving said dancing, said older ladies, transvestites, car crashes, hood ornament theft, caviar, benefit parties, stolen bras, Recession Spankologists, etc.

Louis is young, in a new city -- in THE city -- unsure of so many things: his sexuality, his gender identification, the morals of his new habits, where he is going at all. In the end, he arguably doesn't get very far from where he began the novel, at least not outright. But in the previously mentioned ensuing hijinks, Henry and Louis each get a bit of a peek under the other's facade, and some of the confusion and messiness beneath their gentlemanly airs is revealed. The two men are extreme and desperate examples of the personas we all adopt, the way we shape ourselves to a pastiche of the people and characters we encounter; but there's something familiar about that idealism and that aspiration.

Plus, some of the descriptions are really great; I loved Ames's description of the invisible car owners moving their vehicles from one side of the street to the other every day. Also at one point Louis describes himself as "showered and blue-blazered," which is also in a National song? Coincidence or allusion?

IN SUM! Good, worth a read; it goes quick despite it's length and the characters will probably stay with me for quite some time. However, didn't really inspire me to read Ames's essays or nonfiction.
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02/18/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Oriana (new)

Oriana Amanda this is an awesome review. But may I just please say this: Ames' essays are unutterably amazing, and his fiction is just so-so. Please, I beg you, read a few essays before you make your decision. I'll even lend you a collection.

message 2: by Amanda (last edited Mar 15, 2010 09:42PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Amanda Oriana: Deal. And thanks!

Addendum to review: Fred was like, why three stars? It's more accurately 3.5 stars but I feel like I give four stars to everything... This was good, but not great, so I feel solid about thee stars and still recommending it.

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