WAKE UP, SIR!
By Jonathan Ames. Scribner. 334 pp. $23 What ho, dude! Jonathan Ames has revived and updated Bertie and Jeeves, the feckless master and infinitely resourceful valet who are put through their paces in 11 novels and dozens more short stories by that paragon of persiflage, rollicking humor and tight plotting, P.G. Wodehouse. The Bertie Wooster figure in Wake Up, Sir!, Ames's fifth novel, is Alan Blair, who, despite being a 30-year-old Jewish-American alcoholic writer, fits well into the basic Bertie mold. Which is to say he is a helpless twit. As for the manservant Blair has hired with money from a personal-injury settlement, he truly is a Jeeves, somewhat to his own chagrin, but what can you do when you were born to extricate your betters from scrapes and your name is Jeeves?
This casting decision is a brazen move on Ames's part. Wodehouse was a dual-national treasure -- he lived most of his life in the United States but wrote almost exclusively about the upper-class England in which he was born and raised -- and his position as the funniest writer in the Anglo-American canon, bar none, seems permanently secure. For Ames to have made even a halfway decent stab at living up to the master's standards would be cause for celebration, and I think he has done considerably better than that. (I should mention that Joe Keenan has wrought a gay-themed pastiche of the Bertie-Jeeves formula in his novels Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz.)
Mind you, it's not precisely the world of Wodehouse that Ames would have us enter. If you've read Wodehouse (and if you haven't, what the deuce are you waiting for?), you know that nothing of consequence happens in that realm of ne'er-do-well young club men; beautiful, steel-willed damsels; virago aunts; lords who vacillate between absent-mindedness and mental incompetence; prized cooks; and guardian-angel servants. The plot, ingenious as it may be, is apt to turn on something no more momentous than the filching of a silver creamer (see The Code of the Woosters). Nothing unseemly happens, either. As Richard Usborne puts it in his P.G. Wodehouse Companion, "a bedroom scene [in Wodehouse] is when you discover someone's made you an apple-pie bed and/or punctured your hot water bottle."
Not so in Wake Up, Sir!, where a bedroom scene is when Alan Blair performs any number of bawdy acts upon the willing person of Ava Innocenzo (that surname a misnomer if ever there was one), a sculptor whom he has fallen for at the Yaddo-like artists' retreat where they are both sojourning. And, unlike in Wodehouse, where Jeeves cures every Woosterian hangover by serving one of his famous morning-after pick-me-ups, getting drunk is no laughing matter for Ames's characters. Oh, and they smoke dope, too. This lewding up of Wodehouse works well and, in any case, seems inevitable -- the Age of Innocence winked out some time ago.
Ames's plot falls a bit short of Wodehouse level. Put together a pair of missing slippers, Alan's promise to steal back the sculpture that Ava gave to the retreat's director, Alan's attempts to last even a single day on the wagon, collisions among various eccentric writers and painters (Ava's most seductive asset is her prodigious nose, one fellow suffers from extravagantly sweaty skin, another ejaculates as readily as most of us burp), and you get -- well, let's just say that this welter of donnees doesn't quite cohere into a seamless arc. Then, too, Jeeves's arrival to sort everything out in the last act seems a bit too whirlwind even for a professional deus ex machina. And while I'm kvetching, Wodehouse would never have confused "nauseous" with "nauseated," as Ames does repeatedly.
But get a load of Ames at his bantering best. After Alan gives Jeeves a floridly literary answer to an inquiry about how he's feeling, he asks, "You follow me, Jeeves?" "At some distance, sir," Jeeves replies. Having been punched in the nose, which swells up mightily, Alan remarks, "I've heard discussion of a certain arrangement of features known as a unibrow, well, I had a uniface." Mulling over the sweaty co-retreatant's confession that he hasn't had sex in nine years, Alan reflects, "What could I say to comfort him? Nine years is a terribly long time. One hardly goes nine years without doing most things, except maybe trips to the Far East." And, in response to the same bloke's obsession with his nonexistent cancer of the penis, Alan says, "I told you before that all men see things on their penis. I can't begin to tell you the things I've seen. Just lately even . . . I wonder if anyone has seen the Virgin Mary on their penis. You know there's always these sightings. This would be a very vulgar sighting, of course, and I'm sure the Church wouldn't recognize it, but anything is possible."
As I hope you can tell, Ames can produce a pretty good facsimile of Wodehousean badinage, some of it sharpened to a 21st-century edge. You'll find plenty more such quipping in the book, along with graphic sex, ludicrous mishaps and even a few literary judgments (Alan is a big fan of Anthony Powell's novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time, which both he and Jeeves are reading).
Though it took a while for this to come out, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was mortal (his dates are 1881 to 1975). Once you've breezed through his 92 novels and short story collections, that's it. Or was until Jonathan Ames got busy. Thanks to him, Jeeves is back machinating, and I don't think it's giving a lot away to note that at the end Alan Blair is still kicking, too. As Jeeves himself might prompt Ames, "Carry on, sir!" *
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.