Jonathan Ames Has Gone Noir, And He’s Not Turning Back
With his latest book, "A Man Named Doll," the humorist-turned-crime novelist offers up the best of both worlds
There are two parts to the career of Jonathan Ames.
Actually, no. There are like 10 parts. He’s been a journalist, essayist, actor (including a dalliance with full-frontal nudity), amateur boxer and a few things I’m probably leaving out. He’s also written a handful of novels.
But when I talk about the two parts, I’m talking about his fiction. Read his earlier novels The Extra Man (1998) or Wake Up Sir! (2004) and you’ll notice the influence Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald had on his work. Wind your way up through the aughts, and then there’s a noticeable shift: Ames created a TV show called Bored to Death that attracted a rabid cult following in 2009, but the suits at HBO don’t care about cults, and the show only lasted three seasons. It was somewhere around there that Ames figured out what he wanted to do going forward: crime fiction. The low-stakes antics of Bored to Death gave way to the tense hyperviolence of You Were Never Really Here (2013), ushering in a stylistic shift for the author, who was then better-known for his bumbling, often stoned and always hilarious characters.
“I did have the explicit goal to not be funny at all,” he says about the novella, which was adapted into a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix in 2017 (streaming services have recommended it to me because I’m a “fan” of Ray Donovan and the John Wick movies, in case you’re wondering the vibe).
That leads us to his latest book, A Man Named Doll, a fast-paced neo-noir that traffics in grit and laughs in equal measure. The story is focalized through Happy Doll, an ex-LAPD cop who works security at Thai Miracle Spa in a drab two-story strip mall just off the Hollywood Freeway. Like any good noir, things go from uneventful to catastrophic in the space of a few pages, with Doll establishing his place in the canon of brooding anti-heroes who could care less about being the good guy as long as justice — or something like it — is served.
Of course, there’s still enough Ames in Doll to differentiate him from the likes of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe; beneath the hardscrabble exterior, he’s a half-Jewish ex-cop who leans on Freudian analysis and keeps a half-terrier, half-chihuahua as a sidekick. Ames points to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as a more pertinent forebear than Hammett or Chandler. “He’s the Russ & Daughters of Jewish writers,” he tells me with a laugh.
For Ames, a lifelong fan of crime literature, the road to A Man Named Doll (the first volume in what he envisions as a series) didn’t start when he moved from his native New York to Los Angeles, where the book takes place. Instead, it starts in the East Village, while Ames was sweating it out at the Russian and Turkish bathhouse. His guest at the famed institution was Jeff Garlin, co-star of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Garlin asked Ames for help on how to write his first memoir. It must’ve worked: the book came out not long after, with Ames introducing Garlin for a reading at a Brooklyn bookstore. When everything was done and they were getting ready to leave, Garlin stopped Ames near the mystery section and pulled a book off the shelf. “Have you ever read Richard Stark?” Garlin asked as he handed Ames a copy of The Hunter, the first crime thriller written by Donald Westlake under that pseudonym. He hadn’t, but it set off an obsession for the writer, and the idea of a series instead of a one-off affair.
After a slight detour that saw Ames play Larry David’s business manager on the eighth season of Curb, that obsession would yield Happy Doll, who Ames hops will become noir’s next great leading man. And there’s plenty of reason to think he can do it: Doll is a likable everyman with a dry sense of humor and a cute dog. He’s had a rough life but takes it all in stride; he’s smart, well-read and, like many of the characters Ames is best-known for, he likes weed. In one memorable scene, Happy, who’s trying to avoid taking the Dilaudids that have been prescribed to him for a nasty facial injury, furiously chain-smokes six roaches he had saved. It’s a comical sequence, with Happy quickly learning that weed isn’t necessarily a good substitute for high-grade painkillers.
And that’s really what helps make this book stand out from the crowded field of crime novels: Ames sees room for humor in noir without undermining it. In the case of this book, he says some of that humor came from writing a screenplay for the adaptation of the book, that punching up the story for a movie helped him see where things could be funnier. He mentions one part, a stakeout scene: “I think my initial thing was like the boredom of a stakeout. But then I thought the stakeout was actually boring, or at least reading it [was],” Ames says. So how do you make a skateout more interesting? “That was a place where suddenly more comedy came in, because his [Happy’s] face is killing him. He takes the bandage off, he throws in the backseat, the dog gets it, you know, he’s fighting with the dog to get it back.”
It’s stuff like that that makes A Man Named Doll an entertaining read. If I were suggesting this book to somebody, I’d ask their thoughts on the Robert Altman adaptation of The Long Goodbye versus the book, or other stoner crime stories like The Big Lebowski or Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Or, yes, Bored to Death. If you liked those, then you’re going to love A Man Named Doll. And if you’re more into hardboiled, you’ll still like it, because comic relief notwithstanding, it remains true to the genre. And if you’re just a dyed-in-the-wool Ames lover, whether you became one during the first, second or tenth phase of his career, you’ll feel right at home. Because no matter how much you mess with the knobs dictating genre, plot or setting, a voice as unique as this one will always shine through.
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