Jonathan Ames, Dean Haspiel, The Alcoholic (Vertigo, 2008)
What do you do when you emerge from an alcohol-induced blackout to find yourself in the front seat of a car with an octogenarian dwarf busily working the zipper on your pants so she can get to your “circumcised,” “Jewish” cock? Hurry, now. The police are arriving.
If you’re Jonathan Ames and this conundrum is how you’ve opened your latest project, The Alcoholic, a graphic novel lushly illustrated by Dean Haspiel, you have only a few choices when it comes to narrative. You can keep us suspended in that mad-capped moment, or advance the story line, or back up and do some explaining. Ames chooses the latter, backtracking from that fateful night during the summer of 2001 to the late-1970s: There’s the adolescent imbibing his first, second, fifth beer and magically transforming from “half nerd, half normal” to “cool.” There’s his subsequent Jekyll and Hyde split—model student by day and puking binge drinker by night.
But, as the narrator of The Alcoholic, Jonathan A.—who isn’t Jonathan Ames, exactly, but more on that later—makes clear, you don’t wake up in an octogenarian dwarf’s car because of alcohol alone. And so we see 17-year-old Jonathan A. having his first, second, fifth premature ejaculation with his more sexually experienced girlfriend who ultimately finds someone else. That’s just one of many abandonments that emotionally cripple him. After a let’s-not-talk-about-what-happened night with his best friend Sal, the two drift apart. Then, in his early 20s, his parents die in a car crash, and he begins nursing on one girlfriend’s breasts until she and he must go their separate ways—time and place and all. Many years later, a mid-30s Jonathan A. has fallen for a sex pot he nicknames “Manhattan,” a younger lover who, after she leaves him for the promises of the Left Coast, morphs into “San Francisco,” a continent away but still tormenting his every thought.
But let’s not forget about that car, which appears to be a home of sorts, and how those ancient hands are still prying at your zipper, and now the police have arrived. What do you do? Run like hell, of course. Though Jonathan A. doesn’t seem to run very fast or far, his escape does the trick. The cops don’t follow (He’s lucky this episode occurs in Asbury Park. Here in New York City, the cops—even the fat ones—do run after you. Or try to). But the biggest problem for Jonathan A. isn’t the cops. It’s the hurt inside that he can’t seem to outpace.
The Alcoholic has a certain edge, an emotional immediacy, because we read it as at least semi-autobiographical. Jonathan Ames has said of Jonathan A.’s name that the “A.” could stand for “Anybody” or “Alcoholic”—or “Ames.” Further, Jonathan A. is drawn as a spitting image of his creator, right down to the aquiline nose and bald pate.
Ames seems to be playing a compelling game of biographical hide-and-seek: he lets us know that he knows the territory he’s navigating (he does have a history with substances, well-documented by the likes of Gawker, et al.), while retaining some emotional cover and allowing his imagination to roam. Still, Ames isn’t Freying us with tough guy tall tales. Jonathan A. doesn’t fistfight with cops (remember, he runs) or befriend a mob boss with a heart of gold (the hard-knock love comes courtesy of Great Aunt Sadie). While bodily fluids erupt on about every third page, most typically they take the form of tears. This is the story of a quirky, broken life that our endearing protagonist keeps trying to piece together.
Ames serves up some Gatsby-esque improbabilities—say, the long strand of blonde hair discovered by Manhattan, or the mystical intuition that guides Jonathan A. to Manhattan’s doorstep at exactly the wrong moment, whereby in one heartbroken fell swoop, he falls off the wagon and into the misadventure that is the foundation of this graphic novel. Okay, fine, whatever it takes to make a story good. But the incident with Monica Lewinsky and the kielbasa? I hope that’s fact, not fancy.
Of course Ames treats us to laugh-out-loud hijinx along with sexual kinks—it’s what he’s done so well for so long. But the beating heart of this story is the warm relationships between Jonathan A. and the other characters, particularly Great Aunt Sadie. Sadie is a 76-year-old sophisticate who has loved and lost on multiple continents and continues to revel with a knowing smirk—her current lover is a man who’s a quarter century younger. In one exchange, a despondent Jonathan A. tells Sadie about his recently diagnosed IBS, how it’s related to his worries over Manhattan, who he still wants to wed. Sadie responds: “You can marry her if you want to wear a diaper the rest of your life! I love you but I’m hanging up!”
There are no bad people in Ames’s story—just folks who struggle and, for varying lengths of time, cling to each other sexually, platonically, habitually. Relationships never end because of spite or tragic flaws. They end because of the aforementioned time and place, or a misunderstanding, or mortality, which constantly, even loudly, tic-tocs throughout The Alcoholic.
Because Ames revisits Jonathan A.’s formative years while also propelling the main story line forward, the past remains present, a reminder that “choice” is, at best, complicated. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that there’s no life-changing epiphany at the end, just another opportunity, at a bar entrance, to reconsider.
Prior to this moment, the boom-bust cycle of Jonathan A.’s (Anybody’s? Ames’s?) addiction, from binges to steam room recoveries and back again, morphs into a downward spiral. The drugs get harder and Jonathan A. hurts not just himself but someone he loves. On the way down, he offers some bleak philosophical nuggets, including this one after the World Trade Center attack: “Collectively man was like a gigantic alcoholic—he knew better but couldn’t help but destroy himself.” In a world where one quarter of all mammals face imminent extinction, this theory doesn’t seem terribly self-indulgent.
One final note on The Alcoholic: Dean Haspiel is a danger to writers. Whether he’s portraying Jonathan A.’s inebriated decline with descending panels and sudsy backgrounds; or implementing downcast glances and lengthy shadows to reveal a shame-filled moment between two teen-aged boys; or representing an IBS attack with a snorting dragon; Haspiel seduces with images, often making words moot.