Wake Up, Sir!
By Jonathan Ames (Scribner, $23) Jonathan Ames' latest comic novel is so brilliant and charming that any description of it is bound to be impossibly dull by comparison, but here goes: Alan Blair, a daft, self-absorbed writer trying to complete his second novel, has a (probably) imaginary butler named Jeeves and the ability to teleport himself. Well, it's not exactly teleporting, as he readily admits—it's a variant more commonly known as blacking out. In addition to drinking, Alan shares other traits of the typical Ames narrator (all of whom are more hapless versions of the writer's public persona—well honed on the Manhattan readings/comedy circuit), including sexual confusion, neurotic Jewishness, the wardrobe of a "young gentleman" (blazers, neckties, and slacks), and an entirely fake, though effortlessly brought off, British prose style. Kicked out of his aunt and uncle's house and beaten to a pulp by the boyfriend of a girl he called after finding her number in a phone booth ("He coldcocked me, which is to say he struck me without warning, though I think it would have been highly unusual for him to verbally alert me"), Alan finds refuge in an artists' colony. There he spends the balance of the novel trying to get into the pants of a buxom, big-nosed sculptress. There, too, Ames takes the opportunity to satirize the other characters who parade through Alan's misadventure in a sweet, bighearted way, with an expansive sense of shared human folly. Not only is the character of Alan Blair similar to the author Jonathan Ames, the novel-within-a-novel that Alan is (barely) working on is virtually identical to Ames' own 1998 novel, The Extra Man. Ames' confectionary writing style keeps any of this flimflammery from becoming some tedious postmodern exercise, though this is very much a book about writing books. Alan, while torturing himself with hangovers and writerly self-loathing, takes up what he calls the Jewish Question, the Homosexual Question, and the Racial Question. "With novels it's enough just to ask the Questions," says Alan. "People don't expect too much from literature. They just want to know they're not alone with being confused." Wake Up, Sir! certainly offers that consolation, along with a couple of more precious commodities: mercy and laughter. DAVID STOESZ Jonathan Ames will read and appear with the band One Ring Zero (for which he provides lyrics) at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., July 22; at University Book Store (reading only), 7 p.m. Fri., July 23; and at Third Place Books (reading only), 6 p.m. Sat., July 24. So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star
By Jacob Slichter (Broadway, $21.95) On the comedy CD New Hope for the Ape-Eared, there's a satiric skit in which a hapless corporate rocker blusteringly compares his band to Zeppelin, the Who, and Nirvana. (It actually sounds like warmed-over Nickelback.) He brags, "Once people actually start buying the record, within two years we'll have recouped the recording cost. We're not going to get dropped." The joke is that his kind of band—midlevel major-label alt-rock bands—are typically the first bands that get dropped, not having recouped anything at all. This is the sobering economic undercurrent to Jacob Slichter's smart, funny music-world memoir (the full tongue-in-cheek subtitle is How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales From a Drummer's Life). But there's a twist: Slichter's band, Minneapolis power-poppers Semisonic, actually did have a hit—1998's "Closing Time." It wasn't enough, though: "The shine of my platinum record was dulled by months of multiplatinum expectations," he writes. Semisonic go over $1 million into record-company debt following an image makeover, promotional extravagances (Slichter recalls a lunch whose tab is picked up by his A&R man, who signs it off to the band's corporate account: "Shouldn't you be thanking us for lunch?" the drummer asks), and the mishandling of their debut album. (MCA issues the wrong single—three times.) Yet as Slichter recounts, Semisonic tried to succeed by dutifully following industry rules— making videos that never ran on MTV; playing acoustic sets at radio stations that wouldn't touch their records; appearing on multiband bills for Clear Channel affiliates under threat of virtual blacklisting. If you're looking for sordid tales of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll—see the Mötley Crüe tell-all The Dirt for that particular paradigm—this book is the polar opposite. (Slichter even brags about turning groupies down!) While the indulgences detailed in The Dirt achieve a kind of numbing effect, Slichter's book is a breeze. The author has a knack for comic timing (his account of trying to stay amused while opening for Matchbox 20 is a highlight), and he remains amiable even after things go completely south for the band. His descriptions of its downward slide following one-hit-wonderdom—most humiliatingly, being cut off lip-synching midsong at a VH1 awards show—bite hard. But he never lets go of the fact that he got into the music business for his love of music. Today, even as Semisonic only play occasional shows in their Minneapolis hometown, this book shows how Slichter remains true to the same tune. MICHAELANGELO MATOS Jacob Slichter will appear at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., July 28. firstname.lastname@example.org