Last week I received a sizeable parcel in the post from Pushkin Press, a little end of year present I had awarded myself. It’s not as if I’m short of books, but I came upon their website via someone’s blog review, and I couldn’t resist buying just a few. Along with the Stefan Zweig, Erwin Mortier and others, I added a bit of light relief. After all, the cover of Wake up, Sir!, their 2015 reissue of Jonathan Ames’ 2004 novel, had a picture of a butler or valet-like person holding an umbrella over a seated figure nursing a laptop and the words ‘hilarious’ written five times. It did not disappoint.
Our protagonist Alan Blair is a thirtyish Jewish writer, temporarily living with his aunt and uncle, but endeavouring to avoid contact with them. He hides in his room until they are done with the one bathroom and gone for the day. His only companion seems to be Jeeves, his valet, and Alan keeps very much to his room. He has had some success with his first novel published about six years ago, with the revealing title I Pity I, (which of course reminds me of the immortal George Costanza’s outburst, ‘Pity’s very underrated!’) Alan Blair has a great deal to grieve and be pitied for. His parents are dead, and although he has some money, he seems quite alone in the world apart from Jeeves.
His new novel has the working title, The Walker, and is about the life of Charles, his previous flat mate, with whom he has fallen out. Charles is a lapsed homosexual who now lives by escorting elderly women to grand dinners and functions. Alan is fascinated with the Homosexual Question as he is with the Jewish Question and spends a great deal of time mulling over these issues. He tries to engage Jeeves in discussion but Jeeves usually gives guarded replies like, ‘Some rest is a good idea, Sir.’
Soon they leave the uncle’s home on their way to a Hasidic Spa in Sharon Springs. It is gradually emerging that Alan has a huge drinking problem and has been in rehab. They are not long at the spa when he gets a call to take a place at the Rose Colony in Saratoga Springs, an upmarket sponsored writers’ retreat, but before they move on he is involved in a ridiculously unseemly incident outside the Hen’s Roost Diner, which earns him a broken nose. Thus he arrives at the Rose Colony with a broken nose and two black eyes. But all through this he is supported by Jeeves, who rallies round and calms him a little and advises him to put a cold washcloth to his nose in the absence of ice.
On arrival in Saratoga Springs they put up for a couple of nights at the Spa City Motel where Alan takes stock.
I was an alcoholic who had been beaten to a pulp.
I had no home.
I had lost, over the years, almost all my friends.
This leads to thoughts of suicide. The image of Jerzy Kosinski suffocating himself with a plastic bag is one he often resorts to. His other impulse when in some kind of trouble, is to pack up and run away. But he doesn’t want Jeeves to be upset or to have a black mark on his resume, so he tries to hang on.
During his time at Rose Colony he finds some friends, even love, for a brief time, but his inability to refuse any mind-altering substances or alcohol on offer leads him into those lapses of time where he ‘blacks out’ and has no idea what he has said or done.
After a wonderful Wodehousian trope of breaking into someone’s house to steal an object for another person to whom he owes a favour (not an aunt in this case) from which he is rescued by another someone that he assumes is Jeeves, he has just about run his course at Rose Colony. It is time to move on. Jeeves agrees
‘Yes ,sir. I do think fleeing is the appropriate response.’
From the first paragraph:
‘Wake up, sir. Wake up,’ said Jeeves
‘What? What is it, Jeeves?’ I said, floating out of the mists of Lethe. I had been dreaming of a gray cat, who, like some heavy in a film noir, was throttling in its fists a white mouse. ‘I was dreaming of a gray cat, Jeeves. Quite the bully.’
‘Very good, sir.’
to the very last line:
‘Wake up sir! Wake up.’
I felt that Jeeves could perhaps save Alan. He was, in his terse replies and inexplicable absences, the Jeeves I knew of old. But then I asked myself, had anyone else ever spoken to Jeeves. Was Jeeves ever seen by anyone else?
Indeed an hilarious book, and convincing in its Wodehousian language, but offering so much more about the chaotic life of its tragic hero.