If one looks closely at the photograph on the cover of Jonathan Ames's new book, one can see what is almost certainly the author's right testicle. While I would be delighted to take the credit for having scrutinized the photo sufficiently to make this discovery on my own, it was actually brought to my attention by an e-mail from Ames himself to his e-mail list (subject line: "Ballsy New Book from Jonathan Ames").
A more retiring writer would be mortified to find his testis revealed on bookshelves across the nation. Ames, however, is the polar opposite of retiring; if the photo weren't blurred with obvious motion, one would be forgiven for assuming that he had a hand in this exposure. While he professes to be "worried" about "this ball issue" in his e-mail, it is clearly worry mixed with glee.
It is entirely fitting, this ball issue, and he knows it. Ames, in his essays, is in the business of personal revelation—abject, hilarious, compulsive, heartrending, disgusting—and in this new collection, I Love You More Than You Know, he reveals more than ever before. Moreover, it is what he is most worried by that he most wants to reveal. Moreover-squared, he is even more worried by his corporeal being in I Love You... than previously. His balls themselves are a topic more than once, as is his penis (a wart upon it defines and curtails a European sojourn in "How I Almost Committed Suicide Because of a Wart"; then there's the self-explanatory "Oh, Pardon My Hard-On"). His body also develops enormous intranasal growths and explodes, bowel-wise; he's carried helplessly along. The reportage about it all is approximately equal parts base humor and mortal horror. His chagrin may be astronomical, but he also revels in it.
Then there are the things he does with his body, fueled by his various perversions and accompanied by his own fascinated self-loathing. He chronicles, among other activities, guilt-ridden dalliances with a French whore ("this sad mimicry of sex with a woman who actually wants you") and a Jersey dominatrix and her slave ("Then it ended the way these things usually end: Somebody gets a paper towel and you wish you had never been born.... It was a sunny day. One shouldn't do such things on sunny days. I don't know how the perverts in California live with themselves").
Elsewhere, he is revelatory about the writing process. I was pleased to discover that an earlier book of essays that made me think he was an asshole was the product of his conscious imitation of Bukowski1,2. There is assholishness here—he tips occasionally from being a charming, abashed yet narcissistic skirt-chaser to just a total pig—but great chasms of tenderness are also revealed. His writing about his great-aunt Doris is heart-explodingly sweet, and one essay ("Our Selves Between Us") sears one's soul in two-point-five pages.
As a book of essays, I Love You... has all the delights and furies of the form. Some essays will make you snort or chortle or guffaw or whatever it is you do3; a few are kind of sucky; then there are the aforementioned unbearably tender bits. Mostly, these essays are frustratingly short. (I leave it to the reader to discover what Ames has to say vis-à-vis his genitalia in this regard.)
The penultimate essay, "Midlife Assessment: Cataloging My Ruination," is the apex of both Ames's corporeal obsession and the book's funniness. It, particularly, begs the question of why a man in such a self-described ruinous state would put a photo of himself in his underwear (much less balls out) on the front of his book4. What's behind the self-loathing in I Love You More Than You Know? Could it be love?
1. In order, though it sounds insane, to get laid.
2. I hate Bukowski, making me, according to Ames, a typical woman; so be it.
3. Let's eradicate "laugh out loud," shall we? It's just gone too far.
4. And, it should be noted, he looks irrefutably if blurrily fit in said photo, which is a great image: He's clearly running from and/or toward something dreadful and/or wonderful. The picture on the back is good, too.