Review: Wake Up, Sir!

More madhouse than Wodehouse


There are some terrible ideas for novels. For example, I would have paid good money to have overheard the conversation when Martin Amis told his publisher that The Zone of Interest was going to be a comic sex romp set in Auschwitz. Thirty years on, readers are still divided about whether D M Thomas's The White Hotel was one of the best Holocaust novels or a nonsensical farrago of sex and hysteria.

Jonathan Ames's reissued 2004 novel, Wake Up, Sir! is clearly a shocking idea. Ames has had a curious career. A Jewish-American writer of three novels, a book of short stories, a graphic novel, four books based on his columns for the New York Press, in 2009 he created the HBO television series Bored to Death starring Jason Schwartzman as a struggling Brooklyn novelist (named Jonathan Ames) who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective. And the more eagle-eyed among you may remember him briefly turning up in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm as Larry David's business manager.

Wake Up, Sir! takes a struggling Jewish American writer, Alan Blair and gives him a valet called Jeeves and a narrative voice based on Bertie Wooster. This is a really bad idea because P G Wodehouse was the greatest comic writer ever and Jonathan Ames… isn't. Pushkin Press can quote as many American critics as they like on the cover saying this novel is "hilarious" but there are too many lines like, "A combination of Norman Bates and Vincent Price is more my mood at the moment." Or "the woman, in her fifties, had a long, jellyfish nose, grey teeth, and copper, wiry hair that had a life of its own and not a very pleasant life at that."

Much of the "serious" prose is simply inert: "Your words are like aspirin, Jeeves. Very soothing." Or "Jeeves was home doing who knows what -probably writing letters to fellow valets in servitude in far-off lands."

Then you might think Ames has come up with a very clever idea. Not only has he made Blair (unconvincingly) Jewish, he also makes him a deeply depressed alcoholic with more than a hint of sexual obsession - Bertie Wooster noir, you might say. But reading through all the bad prose, the annoying touches of post-modernism and the unfunny dialogue, I found myself longing for the joys of P G Wodehouse.

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