A BOY'S GUIDE TO DRINKING AND DREAMING
by Jonathan Ames
Below are the books and the authors who shaped me into the man I am today. So this is actually an anti-recommendation list, and best aimed at the the parents of young boys. Keep these books out of your sons' hands! That is unless you want them to end up like me: Thirty-six years old (well, at least they won't die too young, but it is risky) with a deteriorating, patchy hairline, no savings or financial security, and suffering from sporadic, destructive tippling. There are other complaints, too, like constricted bowels, religious agnosticism (which gives a person absolutely no solace), and emotional immaturity. I hope I have scared you sufficiently. These books should come with a *Physician's Warning* and a sticker: *Keep Out of the Reach of Children*.
This list of books will follow the chronological order with which I read these dangerous texts and I will make brief descriptive comments. I should mention there won't be a single female author, which is not good or politically correct, but I am being honest when I say that the books which have truly shaped me have all been written by men, which is probably why I'm such a mess, but this is not to say that I haven't enjoyed the work of women -- I have; it's just that no woman writer has presented me with a *role model*, and that's what this list is about, the books from which I've tried, over the years, to cull a misshapen identity.
(You have to understand, I would study author photographs to try to figure out how to dress; see I was looking for a father-figure; I had one in my own house, but, like many people, I was stupidly looking for another one, and as you'll see I did find Papa . . . So all this to say that I love many women writers, but I never wanted *to be* -- despite rumors to the contrary -- a woman writer or one of their female or male protagonists.)
Here's the list:
1) In the seventh grade, I was given the first in the series of the *Tarzan* books by my seventh grade teacher. I went on to read about twenty of them, though I believe Edgar Rice Burroughs produced thirty or more novels chronicling the adventures of the 'Lord of the jungle'. These books inspired me to be fit and alert: to be like an animal, to be like Tarzan. When my mother would wake me in the morning, I would try to leap out of bed, because there was a description how Tarzan would immediately gain complete consciousness upon awakening. And I wanted to have muscles like the ones he had in the incredible drawings on the front covers -- sinews of iron was how they were always described. And I wanted to be able to fly through trees and I wanted to love one woman, like Jane, forever.
2) In the seventh grade, I also devoured all of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I often fantasized that I was Aragorn son of Arathorn, who was the greatest swordsman in Middle Earth and destined to be King. I ran around the woods near my house, brandishing long sticks, like they were sabres, and then at dinner with my parents, I would keep on pretending that I was Aragorn -- at a Tolkienesque Elfin feast, and this made my mother's cooking, which was pretty good, even better. And later, in high school, when I was on the fencing team, I still pretended that I was Aragorn.
3) Sophomore year in high school, I read all of Kurt Vonnegut's work. This opened my innocent eyes to the fact that the world was an imperfect and nutty place, and I found out that other people had strange sexual thoughts, which was comforting.
4) Junior year, I read Hunter S. Thompson's *Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas* and became Editor of my school paper. I drove drunk a lot, filled my tires with too much air to make them too fast, which was what Thompson's alter ego did, and I would wear a dark cap and sunglasses while doing research for my newspaper articles -- I was aspiring to a Thompsonish costume. My friends called me Hunter.
5) Senior year, I read Kerouac's *On the Road* and this began a many-year obsession with searching for 'it' and hitch-hiking. I sometimes would tell strangers that my name was Jack and would sign hotel registers, Jack Kerouac. One time, in the summer of 1986 when I was twenty-two and naive and living in New York for the summer and very much in my Kerouac-wannabe-mode, I went to an Asian spa, believing the ad I saw in the *Village Voice* which said that you could get a steam bath and a massage for twenty dollars. The spa was in an old walk-up building on Twenty-third Street, across from Madison Park, and I climbed three narrow flights of stairs. In the front room of the spa, I paid my twenty dollars, which was all the money I had with me, to an old grey-haired Chinese woman. There was one young, beautiful frail girl in that front room and she led me down a hall to a room with a bed. There was no steam bath, which sort of annoyed me, but I was expecting to at least get my massage, but the girl told me I had to give her one hundred dollars for sex. She spoke English with a thick, slow accent and I told her I didn't want sex, just a massage. She started to cry, saying she would get in trouble; it was her first week working there. There was nothing I could do, I showed her my empty wallet, and then for some reason she stopped crying, had me lie down and she curled up behind me and held me. I kept my clothes on and she stayed in her skimpy dress. She asked me my name. I told her it was Jack. We lay there for about ten minutes, with her kissing my neck; then she had us reverse and I held her for several minutes, kissing her sweet neck. Then there was a knock on the door and she said I had to go. She walked me to the front door and came out to the top of the stairs with me. Away from her boss, the old lady, she kissed me on the lips. It was the oddest thing. I didn't know why she was being so tender with me; I could only guess that she was relieved at not having to have sex. I started to walk down the long, steep staircase. She stayed at the top, watching me, very beautiful and very young. I turned around and waved and she said, in her thick accent, "Goodbye, Jack. Please come back." She seemed unaware of the rhyme she had just made and I waved again and left. As I walked home, I felt bad that I had lied to her about my name and that was the last time I impersonated Jack Kerouac.
6) Amidst the long-running love affair with Kerouac -- though I only read *On the Road* and *Dharma Bums*, but I was always looking at pictures of him in biographies and feeling heartbroken that he had been so beautiful and drank himself to death -- I had flirtations with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. *The Sun Also Rises* inspired me, when I was twenty, to leave school for a year and to go live in Paris and get in a bar fight with a large Frenchman and have my nose broken. That book also compelled me to travel to Spain to watch a bull-fight, which I didn't enjoy at all -- it seemed so unfair, the bull didn't have a chance.
Fitzgerald's *This Side of Paradise*, which I absorbed my senior year inc ollege, drove me to buy a used white-dinner jacket, which I wore to many parties, until I vomited on it and destroyed it.
7) So those three, Kerouac, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, carried me through my early twenties, and then in my mid-twenties, I read Thomas Mann's *The Magic Mountain* and tried to major in Germanic -- despite being Jewish -- neurasthenia, like Mann's hero, Hans Castorp. So I went around in sport coats, morbid, but well-dressed, like a proper young Hamburg gentleman. And I would take many naps and go for long restorative walks, which I thought were good for my tissues. I was always trying to make my life and my world quiet like I was living in a sanitarium and I was there for a cure. My friends called me Hans.
8) Then in my late twenties and early thirties, returning to my more predictable, American college-campus, cult role-model choices, I ate up the work of Charles Bukowski and like him, got a newspaper column, where I tried to be as honest and as dirty as he had been. He talked about liking women's legs and asses and so I did the same thing. I did this because I knew his column and all his writings with their sexual frankness brought him a good deal of attention from women, despite his ravaged face, and so I hoped that my column, despite my ravaged bald head, might have the same effect. I think it was a better formula for Bukowski than for myself. I repelled more than I attracted.
9) In my mid-thirties, just about the present, I became obsessed with the novels of Graham Greene and whilst travelling, which seems a very Greeneish thing to do, I sometimes privately refer to myself as Graham Greenberg, trying to meld my Jewish faith with yet another love-affair with a Gentile writer. Quite recently, though, the Greene phase has begun to wane, and I'm not sure who I am these days. I wonder if I read my own books, which I have never done, if I might start to model myself after myself. It may be, as they used to say in Hollywood, the role I've been waiting for.