Having Fun with Jonathan Ames’s The Alcoholic
Except for the best of the bestsellers and a few other household names, novelists can seldom support themselves solely on the royalties of their published fiction. This is not to say that all novelists not named Stephen King or Dan Brown are destitute, only that they must find other modes of generating income between novels. Some take to nonfiction (like Jonathan Franzen and others), some write screenplays (Neil Gaiman, et al.) and some simply freelance while retreating from the public eye. Considering the graphic novel The Alcoholic and the now-defunct HBO comedy Bored to Death, Jonathan Ames likes to invent fictional (and often nefarious) lives for himself in a variety of media that most novelists would try to avoid. It wasn’t long ago that most of the cultured world turned up their noses at the sight of comic books and TV shows, but in the last decade graphic novels have picked up esteem inside and out of academia, and television—especially the fare on a premium network like HBO—was finally deemed worthy of critical attention. Based on Ames’s non-novelistic projects, it’s safe to draw the conclusion that he is less concerned with being a pioneering cultural warrior and is instead more interested in having fun.
In short, The Alcoholic is fun: it is as easy to read and absorb as it probably was for Jonathan Ames to write. Part of what makes this work so strong is that the graphic novel format plays to Ames’s literary strengths. In any work of fiction, there are several different components that must work together to move a story along, and in the case of Mr. Ames, his dialogue and narrative voice are just as sharp as his penchant for creating cringe-worthy, darkly comedic scenes. As an example, The Alcoholic opens up in the middle of the action, as the fictional Jonathan Ames is consummating a drunken hookup with an old lady. There are plenty of sexual misadventures throughout The Alcoholic; and without knowing any of the real-life truths behind the anecdotes; we treat the character of Jonathan Ames like any other boozy Brooklynite with delusions of grandeur. More than the frequent (and sometimes devious) sexual encounters, the graphic novel naturally hinges on (the character) Jonathan’s struggles to control his urge to binge—a problem that he attributes to his social awkwardness during his teens and college years, along with the influence of Dionysian authors like Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson.
The binge-purge cycle repeats itself several times over the course of The Alcoholic, most of the time with great effect. In a graphic novel, it’s easier to manage flashback sequences and other manipulations of narrative time because the visual cues quickly achieve what sometimes takes some time to do in words. And with a story constantly teetering between drunkenness and sobriety, such transitions need to be clear. So while the graphic part of the story helps a reader to follow the action without having to stop and break things down, the novelistic side of the work also makes good use of the schizophrenic story structure by mixing in heartfelt, sometimes hopelessly neurotic confessions with the intensified hubris that we witness during the binges. In this way, Ames undermines any expectation that the graphic novel might contain the sort of superheroes we’ve come to expect from the format, but he also avoids traveling down the same narrative roads as Art Spiegleman’s Maus books or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis—the two works that often lend the format a considerable amount of literary gravitas.
Despite the time shifting, there is a linear plot that ties much of the book together and that is sometimes the source of its emotional core. We see that the awkward only-child who became a celebrated novelist uses the trappings afforded by the former to try to compensate for the latter. We even see how his aging great-aunt offers him the sort of unconditional love he so desperately needs. For the first two-thirds of the graphic novel, the quirky cadence of scenes and the heartbreaks weathered by Jonathan, are enough to keep a reader’s attention, but the last act of the book starts to double-down on both the emotional tailspin and the usage of drugs and alcohol.
This shift would not be a problem on its own, but the clumsy inclusion of the September 11th attacks disrupts the rhythm that readers have already become comfortable with. In some ways, the sort of shock and unpredictability of the events presents a realistic sense of what those early hours and days might have felt like for the real-life Jonathan Ames, but with so much personal tragedy already affecting the novelistic narrator, it might not be necessary to sneak in such a big, indelible catastrophe into the story. More than anything else, it’s hard to regain the pre-established balance between the drunken episodes and their requisite regrets—and simply admitting this much via meta-narrative does not make the problem go away.
Beyond the questionable inclusion of the 9/11 narrative, The Alcoholic has some other problems. Except for Jonathan, most of the characters are pretty flat. Jonathan’s great-aunt seems to have lived an exciting and unconventional life, but her potential for roundness as a character is cut off by the narrator who reveals all interesting information through flashbacks and narration while the unique old lady sleeps, plays cards, or eats with Jonathan. Where the fictional Jonathan Ames from Bored to Death is one neurotic character surrounded by the hilarious friends played by Ted Danson and Zach Galafianakis, the Jonathan A. of The Alcoholic hijacks so much of the story that by the end, it’s difficult to care about what might be at stake, and it is also hard to muster a rooting interest in his struggles with sobriety.
The interesting part about the self-centered protagonist and the problems he causes is the fact that Jonathan Ames named the character after himself. This move is not totally new: from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s The House of Fame to more contemporary works like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated and Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur, many writers employ this narrative device with differing levels of success. In its more modern application, a novelist can share a name with his (or her) protagonist in order to add some emotional weight and credibility to a roman a clef (Foer) or s/he can call attention to the reality gap of fiction by creating a fraudulent character that resembles its real-life counterpart (Phillips). In the case of The Alcoholic, Ames attempts to do both things but does not fully succeed. Instead, the work revolves around an outsized ego—fictionalized or real, it’s almost indistinguishable—and the self-loathing that the narcissistic Jonathan A. feels can easily be shared by the reader by the book’s end. There are redeeming qualities to the protagonist, of course (like Jonathan’s response to 9/11), but on the whole a likeable character is transformed into something more tragic than being worthy of our pity: he just becomes boring.
A generous reader can likely excuse away what appear to be narrative missteps. After all, one could argue, the cycle of self-absorption and purgation mirror the real disease of alcoholism, and it’s only natural that form should follow content. There is some validity to such a reaction, but even with such a defense, The Alcoholic fails to end as strongly as it began, and it almost feels as though Jonathan Ames (the writer) lost interest or just direction in the story, which in turns stokes the reader’s apathy as well. With so many novels, films, and other pieces of media surrounding chemical excess, narcissism, and/or addiction, the ultimate failure of The Alcoholic is not in its avoidance of a morally appropriate conclusions nor the absence of a redemptive ending; rather, it’s the inability to add something new to the genre, something that would not only differentiate this struggle from so many others but would also shed new light or a different perspective on what is otherwise well-worn territory.