Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
(Scribner) $23

Anyone who has a soft spot for P. G. Wodehouse's wonderful Jeeves and Wooster stories has also a soft spot for hearing the same story told over and over again--in several variations, to be sure, and very funnily, but the same story nevertheless: Bertie Wooster finds himself in the soup; his man Jeeves gets him out, and usually scores a sartorial point in the bargain. Wooster can hardly be said to progress from story to story; he remains as blank a slate as you could wish, since only a blank slate can be taken by surprise more than once.

This lends to Jonathan Ames' Wake Up, Sir! an odd and pleasing sense of countercurrent, since Ames' protagonist, Alan Blair--an alcoholic writer in the process of fictionalizing himself for a book that sounds a whole lot like Ames' The Extra Man--does progress, or at least wants to. Unlike Wooster, he feels a great deal of pain and regret about things, longs for love, longs for art. (Blair has Wooster's self- deprecating flair, but lacks his class arrogance.) And during Alan Blair's manic series of adventures--a brawl in a Catskills parking lot, an intricate situation at a famous writers' colony that includes a marathon sex scene and some stolen slippers--his valet's stability and philosophical calm is as improbable as his very presence.

This is the book's funniest premise--that Blair inserts Jeeves into all these improbable situations, and no one raises an eyebrow--and it's also somehow its most moving. Most of us practice one form or another of denial; Blair's is the conviction, which he takes pains to make true, that he's a gentleman. Jeeves is part of an elaborate construction meant to keep the pain of the world at bay. But Blair's problems are more complex than Wooster's, and not even Jeeves can heal the rifts of alcoholism and depression. This light-seeming comedy of manners, as it turns out, is also (rather than actually) the story of a failure of a comedy of manners.

Jonathan Ames reads at University Book Store (4326 University Way NE, 634-3400) on Fri July 23 at 7 pm, and it's free.