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Ames, Jonathan (b. 1964)  
 
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Performance artist, story teller, essayist, and novelist, Jonathan Ames is ostensibly "straight," but his three novels and many of his autobiographical essays explore that gray area in human sexuality where the boundaries between gay and straight identity become blurred. Ames says that he is "probably the gayest straight writer in America."

Born in 1964, Ames grew up in a Jewish family in suburban New Jersey. He attended Princeton, where he studied with Joyce Carol Oates. His first novel, I Pass Like Night (1989), was his senior thesis. He also studied at Columbia University with novelist Richard Price. He is the father of a teen-aged son.

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Ames credits writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien with influencing his fantasy life as a child. Later literary influences include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, and Charles Bukowski. Of the latter, Ames has commented, "I ate up the work of Charles Bukowski and like him, got a newspaper column, where I tried to be as dirty and honest as he had been."

But perhaps more significant in his development as a writer than particular literary influences was the late onset of puberty. He was almost sixteen when he entered puberty. This condition is not only the subject of the first essay in his "memoir," What's Not to Love: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer (2000), but it also affects the protagonists of both his novels.

Ames's first novel is a predictable product of a talented and intelligent student in an elite university's creative writing program. Notable primarily for its graphic scenes of the New York sexual underworld, it tells a familiar story of adolescent angst and coming of age. Although there are seeds of Ames's unique way of looking at the world here, they are not fully developed, and the novel is unformed and contrived.

Ames's distinctive voice became apparent first in the "City Slicker" columns he wrote for The New York Press from 1997 to 2000 (collected in What's Not to Love) and in his breakthrough second novel, The Extra Man (1999).

The Extra Man is the coming-of-age story of Louis Ives, a young man who loses his job at a New Jersey prep school when a co-worker catches him wearing a bra in an obvious state of arousal. He moves to New York City, where he becomes roommates with an older man, Henry Harrison, after responding to a newspaper ad.

A delightful curmudgeon, Henry is an impoverished part-time English professor at a New York community college and "the extra man" of the title. That is, he is the available gentleman who squires older society women around New York City and West Palm Beach. For that, he receives free meals and tickets to plays and operas.

Full of outrageous opinions, but curiously puritanical about sex, Henry functions as father figure and mentor to the orphaned Louis. Although Henry is the most fully developed character in the novel, a figure of Dickensian proportion, Ames never lets the reader know much about his past, or even whether he is straight or gay.

While Henry is taking out his lady friends, Louis, who views himself as a "Young Gentleman" in a Fitzgerald novel, has a number of sexual adventures. In addition to visiting a lady "spankologist" and a make-over artist who specializes in dressing transvestites, he discovers the delights and fears of Sally's, a Times Square bar.

Louis is caught on the horns of a dilemma: does he want to be a transvestite or is he a tranny chaser? Miss Pepper, one of Sally's beautiful pre-op regulars, tells Louis that he is not really straight or gay. "Straightish" is the word she coins to describe him.

Guilt-ridden about his secret life on the edge, Louis idealizes what he perceives to be Henry's almost asexual persona. Indeed, the relationship that develops between the two men is the most fulfilling emotional bond in their lives. Nevertheless, Louis is mortified when Henry discovers him in bed with a transsexual and shocked when he thinks that Henry may have made a pass at him at their apartment one evening. He is really not sure about the pass, and the issue is never resolved.

Perhaps that is as it should be in this touching and funny novel. The Extra Man is particularly interesting for its wide-eyed innocence and its blurring of categories of all kinds. In this quintessentially book, labels simply do not do justice to the complexities of the emotional and sexual lives of its characters, who are never only what they may seem when seen at a particular moment. Perhaps that is why Ames chose to make Henry a "walker," an escort for older women. As he has commented, "I am always drawn to people on the edge. Walkers are on the outside, but appear to be on the inside."

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