Sam Leith

Smashing stuff

Jonathan Ames’s darkly humorous novella of the (literal) smashing of American child-traffickers is exceptionally well done, says Sam Leith

Smashing stuff
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You Were Never Really Here

Jonathan Ames

Pushkin Vertigo, pp. 92, £

‘Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking.’ Life is always cheap in noir fiction — but it takes it that step further when the protagonist’s homicidal impulses extend to himself.

The hero of this fast-moving, agreeably violent and perfectly pared-down novella is Joe, a former FBI agent and marine who has reduced what remains of his life to a sliver of deadly purpose. After a gruesome incident in his past, ‘his limit for trauma, a very high limit, had been reached’ and he went completely off his onion. The only method he could devise to stay in the world was ‘to get very small and very quiet and leave no wake’ — and his only raison d’être, in civilian life, is to rescue trafficked children and batter their traffickers to death.

His favourite weapon is a hammer: ‘Left very little evidence, excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone.’ The author adds drily that ‘Joe also liked the common fire axe for this reason, but you couldn’t conceal a fire axe.’ As that indicates, around this existentially inky situation Jonathan Ames weaves some very down-low traces of mirth. Here’s a knowingly deadpanned exercise in genre.

You Were Never Really Here kicks off when Joe is hired by a US senator to recover his daughter, who, having been groomed on Facebook and abducted, is now being held prisoner in an underage brothel in Manhattan. Joe goes methodically about his business, breaking necks and smashing stuff up. But then things take an unexpected sideways jump and Joe’s home life, such as it is, starts to look under threat. As a great man said: it’s hammer time!

If you like this sort of thing, which I do, you’ll like this a good deal. It’s whip-thin in terms of plot and characterisation — but it’s done exceptionally well; enough darkness to flavour the atmosphere, enough humour to stop it being pompous. It makes you think that Jonathan Ames — whose previous novel was a much-admired Jeeves and Wooster meta-fiction called Wake Up, Sir!, and who also created an HBO sitcom about a failed writer called Jonathan Ames — can do more or less anything he turns his hand to. I’d like him to turn his hand to a full-length crime novel.