Wake Up, Sir! is the latest novel by the American humourist Jonathan Ames; the book first appeared in the States a decade ago, but Ames hasn’t published a novel since, so the title still stands. He has produced a collection of short stories, several volumes of essays and a comic in the interim, as well as creating the HBO comedy series Bored to Death, in which Jason Schwartzman stars as a Brooklyn-based writer turned private detective called… Jonathan Ames. So he’s been busy. But Pushkin Press is to be applauded for bringing Wake Up, Sir! to British readers at last, firstly because Ames is a funny writer and this is a frequently hilarious novel; and secondly because its premise is quintessentially — and, in at least one respect, bizarrely — British. For Wake Up, Sir! is the greatest P.G. Wodehouse novel John Cheever or Saul Bellow never wrote.
Alan Blair is an American writer, alcoholic and Anglophile with a portfolio of emotional and sexual problems and a manservant called Jeeves, who helps him out of the various horribly degrading scrapes he keeps landing himself in. ‘For me a sports coat is not unlike Batman’s utility belt, which I remember admiring as a small boy during my American childhood,’ notes Blair early on, ‘years before my sense of myself as an American got somewhat clouded by reading too many British novels.’ Fittingly, this Jeeves seems both to be the perfect personal valet and also a figment of Blair’s dipsomaniacal imagination.
In this respect, Wake Up, Sir! is rather like The Big Lebowski, one of those Coen brothers films where the initial offbeat concept dictates what follows i.e. what would a Raymond Chandler adaptation be like if it was set in the early 1990s with the Philip Marlowe role taken by an unrepentant slacker calling himself The Dude? Ames’s mastery of the Wodehouseian idiom is total; it’s hard to believe that Bertie Wooster’s legions of admirers won’t find much to enjoy here. Yet what sustains and fuels the book is the way in which fluent Plum pastiche is constantly bumping up against tropes of the Great American Novel, deepening into something richer and sadder as it goes. Comparisons to early Roth or On The Road are not misplaced, not least because Ames actively invites them.
The result is an improbable mismatch that shouldn’t work but does: Jeeves and Portnoy side by side and on the skids. Wonderful.
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