Sunday, August 2, 2009

Review: Anything Goes


Recall New York in the 90s. People were afraid to jog in Central Park. The outer boroughs had yet to be claimed truly by hipsters. Window-washers approached your car in the Bronx as you waited to get on to the Second Avenue Bridge. Prostitutes stood at street corners on Tenth Avenue, at Times Square, the first people to greet tourists as they came to this city of cities.

In The Extra Man, the second novel by Jonathan Ames, this is all ‘romanticised’ – to a degree by bringing in the idea of the 1920s gentleman, Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, and Cole Porter’s tunes. This is a New York that only the tough could love, that only the eccentric could live in. And somehow millions of people were still able to deal with it.

As with all of Ames’s work, there is a certain interest in non-‘mainstream’ sexuality: men who enjoy dressing in women’s clothing, men who believe they’re really women (uranians), transsexuals hyped up on hormones, people who are not homo-, hetero-, a-, or even bisexual but trisexual. The list obviously goes on. And in Ames’s capable hands, these people don’t feel like tools made for us to understand a particular point of view; they’re actual flesh and blood characters whose company we can enjoy, whose pain we can feel. Through that, and a writing style that is always direct and humorous, Ames is able to create a world that moves so quickly, that is so enticing, that it’s a pleasure to engage yourself into it.

After getting caught wearing a fellow teacher’s brassiere in the school lounge, Louis Ives was not invited to come back to Princeton’s Petty Brook Day School. On a whim, he decides to move to New York; by discovering an advertisement looking for a writerly roommate, he falls upon Henry Harrison, an eccentric old man – former actor and playwright whose plays were stolen from him and might be up on the stage in Yugoslavia by a treacherous old acquaintance – who has the most curious of habits. He flushes before he finishes urinating. In order to get ‘free’ tickets to the opera or Broadway show, he waits until the second act, when touristy patrons are unlikely to go back in to see the end of the show and takes their seats. He can quote Wilde, Keats, and Fitzgerald (I guess that’s not curious, but perhaps to some). He can charm women to buy him dinners. He has a car that is always on empty, just in case he has to dump it somewhere, he doesn’t want to feel he lost money to gas.

Henry decides to take Louis in as his protégé, to teach him how to be a gentleman in New York society without really spending a penny. So begins a Don Quixote-and-Sancho Panza-like relationship. And like Don Quixote, The Extra Man is like an episodic novel (with an arc) that follows the humorous, ironic, sad, and slapstick tales of these two bumbling gentlemen.

Louis, as he is getting pushed up socially (at least in the geriatric socialites’ eyes), starts putting on a costume of suits and hats. But simultaneously he is still intrigued by wearing women’s clothing (notably bras). The New York Press runs advertisements for spankers and for transsexual bars, one called Sally’s which is across the street from the (old) New York Times building, where he walks and talks with various queens. He seems like he’s being raised and submerged simultaneously; it’s hard to make out which path is which though. But in the end it’s all experience, all enlightenment of some sort or other, for Louis has attachments to people – something of utmost importance.

Filled with literary anecdotes from Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald, Anglophilia, and absurd axioms spouted by Henry, The Extra Man is an amusing comic novel that is malleable enough to hit both the high and low culture.

The film version of this story has just finished shooting in New York, starring Kevin Klein, John C Reilly, Paul Dano, and Katie Holmes – which should make an exciting cast. I would be more amused if Holmes ends up playing a transsexual. The film has been adapted for the screen and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the team that brought you American Splendor and The Nanny Diaries. The movie is set to be released in 2010.


Kari said…

This sounds like an interesting side of New York. With that cast, I'm wondering if the book or the movie will be more entertaining.

Salvatore said…

Kevin Klein is a great choice for Henry. Not sure who, in the line-up, would make a capable Louis. Unfortunately I think the literary jokes will be lost in the translation to the film. But so it goes.