Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. (Pushkin Press)
I first came to know Jonathan Ames’ work through the HBO series Bored to Death, a show about a novelist who takes up moonlighting as an unlicensed private investigator to try and get his creative juices flowing. It stars Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson. It is one of the funniest shows I’ve ever watched, so I was surprised to see Jonathan Ames as the guest on Brad Lisit’s Otherppl podcast talking about his latest novella, You Were Never Really Here. I hadn’t realized it was a book; all I knew was it was Joaquin Phoenix’s new movie about an ex-Marine who helps extricate young girls from sex-trafficking rings. It is notably not a comedy. The conversation Ames had on that podcast piqued my interest because I like when authors genre jump. Oftentimes, we’re treated with a fresh new take on an old formula; and while that’s not what we get here, it turns out that Ames is still pretty damn good at writing crime fiction.
The book follows Joe, a man who has found himself working in the shadows for people who want their little girls back. These are people who are so desperate they don’t want to go to the police because they know all the protocols involved could get in the way. Joe appeases these customers by going in with a hammer and not only brings the girls back home, but justice as well. A New York politician hires Joe to find his daughter who has been missing for nearly a year. As Joe tries to complete his mission, everything gets jumbled when crooked cops show up and kidnap the girl again. Joe finds himself—and what’s left of his personal life—tangled up in this web of corruption and the only way to get out is to tear his way through.
The book relies on the normal tropes and elements we generally find in crime and noir stories, but Ames isn’t hiding that fact. He’s writing it from the perspective of a fan who loves the well-known twists and turns, and it comes off more as an homage rather than derivative. It’s a story that is close to the bone, where every sentence matters, and Ames doesn’t waste a word as he quickly moves through the novella. At times, I thought he could have followed different threads and beefed the book up to four times the size, but instead he kept a single story as the focus.
The book relies on the normal tropes and elements we generally find in crime and noir stories, but Ames isn’t hiding that fact. He’s writing it from the perspective of a fan who loves the well-known twists and turns, and it comes off more as an homage rather than derivative.
Joe, given as quickly paced as this book is, has a good amount of depth. There is an Elmore Leonard book called Mr. Majestyk that was action-oriented, and the plot propelled the story forward. You Were Never Really Here is similar in that it’s plot driven, but the difference is Ames transcends the genre because he is able to give so much weight to who Joe is as a character. He a badass with a hammer who barges in and takes out the trash (as in he hits bad dudes with a hammer), but he’s so much more than that. There is emotional importance to every decision he makes. His actions influence the ways he looks at himself and the world, so it’s in this constant state of self-reflection that I, as the reader, care about the decisions he makes.
As the book came to a close, I was wondering how Ames was going to end it. It seemed too quick for him to wrap the story up, and instead of giving us a satisfying conclusion he chose to give us a cliffhanger. On the Otherppl podcast, he talked about how he’s currently writing the sequel, but I can’t quite buy that classification. It’s going to be too tied to this first novella to be a separate story. I’m looking at it more as an episodic adventure where each book is giving us another installment of this single overarching story, and in the end they could be compiled into a full novel à la The Green Mile. If the book was longer and not as fast moving, I may have been more irritated with the ending; but since Ames struck a nice tone of entertainment, I was able to let it go pretty quickly, especially since this is a book you can read in one sitting.
You Were Never Really Here could be a book read purely for entertainment. This was the mindset I was going into it with, but about halfway through, when I found myself invested in Joe’s character, I realized it was so much more. This is a special little book because Joe grows on you so quickly and fiercely that you root for him on multiple levels. Ames proves he can do more than comedy. He has a knack for the thrilling and I wait anxiously for the next episode of Joe hammering bad dudes.