Old Story With ‘Bipolar Twist’: Braving the Big City in Drag

The Extra Man , by Jonathan Ames. Scribner, 333 pages, $23.

Imagine a version of The Great Gatsby in which Nick Carraway has this teensy problem, this little tendency to cross-dress. Imagine Gatsby, Nick’s guide and entree to the seductive world of new money and old heartbreak, transformed into an elderly eccentric who dyes his hair with mascara, lives in cockroach-infested squalor on the Upper East Side while satisfying his desire for grandeur, style and self-mythologizing by offering his services as a walker for wealthy society women. Of course, Fitzgerald’s novel is a near-perfect work of art (ranked No. 2 on the list of the century’s top 100 English-language novels by the Modern Library’s editorial board!) while The Extra Man trades heavily on its considerable charm. But both books make you think about the lure of class and wealth, and about how the young attempt to fashion coherent identities from the available scraps around them. Also, Mr. Ames has the one thing that Fitzgerald lacked: a sense of humor.

Actually, The Extra Man has closer literary relatives; it belongs to that tribe of novel in which the hopeful, energetic, naïve but determined young man or woman leaves the provinces for the big city with dreams of becoming the sort of person who thrives in the glittery metropolis. In Balzac, a Machiavellian hero blithely climbs over the shattered lives or psyches of those who helped him on his way up. For Dawn Powell, urban survival more often meant learning to swim in waters populated by very weird Greenwich Village fish.

From the start, Mr. Ames gives this familiar narrative a twisted, 90′s launching. What rockets Louis Ives out of the boondocks (in this case, Princeton, N.J.) to seek his fortune in Manhattan is not the usual constellation of ambitions and discontents (boredom with small-town life, dreams of personal glory, etc.) but rather a moment of personal slippage. During a break from his teaching duties at a tony prep school, Louis is caught by the head of the Lower School in the act of trying on a colleague’s bra.

One has no way of knowing how the average reader will react to a hero–a teacher of the young, no less–whom we meet wearing women’s underwear within the novel’s first two pages. It’s to Mr. Ames’ credit that he doesn’t seem to know or care that anyone might not find this turn of events to be utterly winning and sympathetic. Louis is, as it happens, enormously endearing, though what really won my heart, I suspect, is the fact that he is so unashamedly bookish–a quality one meets as rarely in fiction as in life. His idea of himself–as “a young gentleman”–comes as much from what he’s read as from anything he’s experienced. (“Sitting on those vinyl seats with my fellow Jerseyans, I imagined that I was in Europe … The ruined land between New York and Newark became the farms outside of Paris. It wasn’t 1992, it was 1922. I stared out the window. I was a reflective young gentleman traveling alone; my emotions were still damaged by the War. I was a romantic figure.”) Fittingly, too, our hero’s an orphan; his only surviving close relative is an elderly, fabulously foul-mouthed, irrepressibly horny great-aunt in Queens.

We understand immediately why Louis would be drawn to the elaborately crafted personality of Henry Harrison, whose apartment he moves into after answering Henry’s classified ad for a roommate. A creature of indeterminate age and sexuality, the author of a “sexual comedy about the Shakers,” a dandy in thrift-shop finery carefully arranged to conceal its more egregious rips and stains, a culture lover given to sneaking into the opera at intermission and waltzing solo about the cramped flat to the strains of Cole Porter, Henry has created a consistent and weirdly authoritative self that simultaneously awes, annoys and fascinates Louis. As bizarre as Henry is, he’s been like that for a while, a source of comfort and stability for the young gentleman writhing in existential confusion and gender-identity hell.

For Louis’ dreams of young-gentlemanhood aren’t exactly in perfect sync with the inner promptings that drive him straight to the low-rent end of New York night life–to a “Recession Spankologist” on the Upper West Side, to a woman offering fashion and cosmetic makeovers to the insecure cross-dressers who visit her Bay Ridge apartment, and most frequently and obsessively, to a midtown transvestite bar in which Louis looks for love, or at least some way of coming to terms with his “bipolar condition. It wasn’t mood-related, it was sex-related. On one pole there was a desire for femininity and beauty, to appear like a pretty girl, and on the other pole I wanted to be a young gentleman who wore a tie and went to hear Tosca at Lincoln Center. How was I to reconcile this?”

What makes all this hold together, plausibly, is how well Mr. Ames can write. He’s intelligent and very funny, and on the simplest level it’s entertaining to watch him put together a paragraph. But The Extra Man goes deeper than style and entertainment, persuading the reader with the offhand way it assumes that oddness and eccentricity are noble and attractive, and with the breezy confidence with which Mr. Ames sails into simultaneously comical and tender scenes such as the one in which Louis goes home to Queens with an attractive young Puerto Rican transsexual named Wendy and briefly allows himself to imagine that he has found true romance.

The novel gives us at least enough to keep us reading along contentedly, though at times we can’t help wanting more. The world of the rich, daffy women Henry escorts is unsatisfyingly flat and cartoonish, and we may wish we were hearing less about Henry’s lovable quirks (his inability to locate his keys or remember where he’s parked his car) and getting, from Mr. Ames, a somewhat more precise and accurate take on those uptown charity balls and benefit art-openings, on what life might actually be like for a semi-busy “elderly gigolo”; we find ourselves longing for the wicked verisimilitude of those evenings among the lemon tarts and social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities . Also it must be said that a little of Henry goes a longer way than Mr. Ames seems to realize; spending too much uninterrupted time in the loopy old codger’s company makes us start to think uneasily of that cranky bachelor neighbor we’ve met in one too many TV sitcoms.

The specter of sitcom–and the ghostly echoes of laugh track–do hover a little ominously over certain sections of the novel, especially in its final chapters, when we feel Mr. Ames hesitantly vamping as he searches for a way of resolving Louis’ difficulties–or, failing that, of bringing the plot to some sort of reasonable conclusion. For the most part, though, The Extra Man wins us over with its sheer energy and good will, its confidence in the ability of its own humor and intelligence to widen our ideas about the possibilities of love, and about the permissible range of inner and outer lives to which today’s young gentleman may properly aspire.