Jonathan Ames – The Extra Man

Louis Ives is a young man leading a quiet life teaching in Princeton. No, not Princeton University, but year 7 at Pretty Brook school. As he enjoys his job and is rather shy, he cannot see his life changing. But he has his weaknesses, and an incident where he is caught trying on a colleague’s bra in the staff room sees him moving to New York.

Why was he so drawn to a common or garden white brassiere? This is his take on it

I first became aware of this longing to be a girl when I was quite young. I was only four or five years old, and I was watching cartoons on the television. One of the characters, it was Porky Pig I believe, was pushed off a high cliff and as he fell endlessly through the air his clothes were whipped about him and somehow through the miracle of cartooning he was transformed into a girl. His fluttering pants became a dress, his face became pretty, his eyelashes curled upward, his hair grew long, and little breasts bloomed beneath his shirt. He smiled happily…And somehow as Porky Pig became a girl, I thought that I was also becoming a girl. and I liked it. I liked it better than being a boy.

Ever since this moment the accoutrements of women have a compelling attraction for Louis.  But he also feels a great deal of guilt. For one who is concerned about his image, for he likes to see himself as a young man who could have stepped out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel, this pull to aspects of the female is confusing.

He moves to New York and finds a room in a tiny dirty share-apartment with Henry Harrison; brilliant, handsome, very hard-up. Henry does some tutoring but mainly gets by working his charm on very rich elderly women; escorting them to the Opera or to gallery openings, and in exchange he is dined and wined in the very best restaurants. He is ‘the extra man.’

His apartment is not hygenic, but it is cheap, and Louis is drawn to Harrison

We followed the orange path and went into the narrow bathroom. It was filthy and off-putting. There was a patch of worn blue carpet on the floor, and a set of shelves painted blue to match the carpet.   On the shelves were dozens of ointments and toiletries. Most of them were squeezed out and ancient. On the top shelf there was an artistic arrangement, like the seating of a Greek theater, of tiny dust-covered shampoo bottles bearing the crests and imprints of various hotels.

The extra man must be available at short notice. He must be able to present well and dress well. This is not easy for Henry because he doesn’t possess an iron. He washes his shirts by wearing them under the shower and his clothes mainly come from thrift shops.

Louis finds a job and his way around New York. He observes Henry’s cunning tactics with great interest and sometimes is called upon to make up the numbers. As he explores his own longings he also becomes more curious about Henry. The book is really the story of their growing friendship. In spite of roaches, fleas, and mice in the seedy apartment that Henry is illegally sub-letting they come to matter in each other’s live.

I read Wake Up, Sir by Jonathan Ames a few years ago and only came across this book because I was told about a film The Extra Man starring Kevin Kline. It doesn’t seem to be available for streaming in Australia but to my delight I was able to get the book in a handsome re edition from Pushkin Press. Ames moved on to much darker fiction after these two books, but this hit the spot for me. And if you like New York you will love it.

Here is Louis on the subway

My mood was lifted. Staring out the window was hypnotic: we raced ahead, careening on narrow rails; the white headlights barely illuminated the dark tunnel in front of us; the rusted metal beams along the ceiling and the walls were like ribs. I thought of the workers, the diggers, sixty years earlier, some of whom must have died when the earth would unexpectedly collapse.

The train hurtled along and filled the whole narrow passage, and the suddenly the platform appeared in yellow light. They looked like faraway stages and the people like an uneven chorus line…

10 thoughts on “Jonathan Ames – The Extra Man

      1. I lived in Princeton for a college summer, working for the Gallup Poll, and living in a series of cheap boarding houses (rescued at one point by couple of 50-ish women who fed me sherry and cookies and showed me a slightly more genteel side of non-university life in Princeton). Later I lived in New York in an apartment a step down from Harrison’s. But the people were very different from the ones I knew, and it was a pleasure to meet them briefly —

  1. I love how different this sounds from the Ames I read a few years ago, You Were Never Really Here, also made into a film (in this instance by Lynne Ramsay). It signals a real sense of breadth to his work…

  2. Interesting to see another side of life Gert, but I’m not sure it would be uplifting. At this stage of the game I’m looking for uplifting.

    1. You’d better not read this book then Leslie. It concerns the grungy side of life. But in another way I suppose the way people just keep going could be inspiring.

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