My challenge to copywriters and reviewers: Try to go 30 days without using the word “zeitgeist”.
Wait, let me start over. Sometimes the synopsis for a book becomes misleading when the publisher insists on plugging it in a bankable, though inaccurate way.
A “darkly comic” novel with “ingeniously subversive humor” about assisting a parent’s suicide has you imagining a different book than what Buffalo Lockjaw actually is. I’ve seen more than one person already compare author Greg Ames to Chuck Klosterman, but I say he lacks the latter’s strained assertion of hipness. In reality, Ames’ writing is straightforward with almost no literary wankery, which many might appreciate. But this is to say it’s also mostly unremarkable. He takes no risks — he doesn’t stand out as a voice.
But I do like him, because the story he tells is one I’ve always wanted to read.
28-year-old James, a greeting card writer in New York, returns home to Buffalo over Thanksgiving to visit his Alzheimer-stricken mother. He helps feed her at the nursing home, endures awkward conversations with his father and sister (and her girlfriend), and tries to reconnect with old buddies who’ve gone nowhere since high school.
His mother, a former nurse and advocate for “death with dignity”, discovered the onset of her disease four years earlier and insisted she be allowed to die before decaying to nothing. James talked her out of it. But now he comes home with a secret mission to finally honor his mother’s original wish.
It’s a premise made even more sympathetic by the fact that James is the family’s black sheep. Really, try selling the whole let’s-kill-Mom idea to Dad and Sis when the only thing you’ve accomplished is recovering from alcoholism.
Readers might pick up Lockjaw for its Alzheimer’s story, but many others will be curious about a novel with an obvious devotion to a certain setting…
Buffalo: A wintry Purgatory for the aimless and defeated.
Lockjaw more or less concedes to this description of its town while trying to show sparkling exceptions. It takes periodic breaks in the story to deliver Spoon River-like monologues from the denizens of the town. These are interviews that James recorded long ago for an unfinished “ethnography” project, and they consist of Buffaloans sounding off about whatever they feel like. Many of these provide some welcome color, like this tidbit from bartender “Handsome” Tom:
Grover Cleveland, our thirty-fourth president, worked as a hangman in Buffalo before he went to the White House… And so he’s the only paid killer to become the president, as far as I know… What a guy! One of Buffalo’s finest exports. And a Democrat.
Trouble is, the monologues never amount to any narrative relevance and start to feel like gimmicky sideshows.
Using James’ general carousing and encounters with old friends, Lockjaw takes frequent cigarette breaks from the Alzheimer’s drama. While that’s well intended, the central plot is actually far more interesting than any of James’ diversions. Brickteeth, Costello, and the rest of the one-dimensional lowlifes are toxic and joyless, and I was happy to be rid of them when the story allowed it (James even dismisses Regis, his romantic rival, as “cartoonish”, but I couldn’t help feeling the author did this after realizing he wasn’t sketching a believable adversary). There are some standout scenes, like when James volunteers to be a nude model for his artist friend, Corinne, but for the most part the forgettable characterization renders most sequences likewise.
When James is especially irritated, he composes greeting cards in his head for the current situation. His interactions with the family really get these flowing. His opaque father and condescending sister are interesting obstacles in his euthanasia plot and really help you appreciate his relationship with his mother.
“[Rodney’s] devotion to [Kate], his favorite child, never really concerned me because I always had Mom, champion of the underdogs, in my corner.”
All these family issues breed potential for some real melodrama –thankfully, it never gets syrupy. This is a book about a lonely man making connections wherever he can manage, and all of those victories are small victories. If you want to be wrapped up in a cathartic ending, this isn’t your book, but I at least appreciated its insistence on remaining grounded and thoughtful throughout.
I wouldn’t call Buffalo Lockjaw a bad book. It’s sympathetic and unpretentious, and it started to win me back when it settled again into the central plot that Ames has no trouble writing. But when I look back on the novels I’ll have read this year, it’ll be a struggle to recall this one.