Book Review: Greg Ames's Buffalo Lockjaw
Not far into Greg Ames's debut novel, Buffalo Lockjaw, I couldn't help but consider its publication as coming in the wake of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision. Much like Kunkel's Dwight Wilmerding, Ames's protagonist, James Fitzroy is in his late twenties, wayward but essentially well-meaning, and ready to change his life. Both books fit into the centuries-old tradition of portraits of a young man as a young man, a genre that will remain robust, presumably, so long as men, both young and old, keep on reading. With so many books existing in that tradition, why do I compare Buffalo Lockjaw to Indecision? They both portray a symptom of the modern American bildungsroman: we—young, literate, middle-class males—aren't growing up until we're nearly thirty. The trials and tribulations that struck Holden Caulfield at seventeen back in 1951 don't strike our contemporary protagonists until a full decade later.
Ames's novel, does, however—and rather quickly—diverge from the track of Kunkel's. Where Wilmerding heads off to an exotic South American locale to find himself with the aid of an experimental drug, the alcoholic Fitzroy heads home to Buffalo and dives back into the low-life he had left behind, aided only by a renewed interest in swilling cheap beer and skuzzy bars. Fitzroy's mother is in a nursing home suffering from dementia, and his stated purpose in coming home this Thanksgiving is to euthanize her, putting her out of her misery. He isn't sure if he can do it, isn't sure if it will be the action that saves him as well as his mother, but he thinks she would have done it herself if he hadn't stopped her while she was still cogent, and his considerations of the act's moral necessity imbue all of his diversions and ventures into low-life Buffalo with a sense of dread.
Buffalo, for many people, is the butt of a joke, the host of inexplicably bad weather, the main target of lake effect snow, or that city on the way to Niagara Falls. James, immediately stomping through those snowy sidewalks, and interacting with Buffalo's oft-tired, oft-drunk citizenry, is as aware of the jokes as anyone anywhere else. As he puts it, "it's time to face reality. We've fallen out of grace. Cleveland has surpassed us. Pittsburgh won't even look at us. And we're dead to Chicago." It isn't nostalgia that lures James back into his old haunts, but familiarity, as he returns to the scenes of the burgeoning alcoholism of his teenage years and early twenties. He needs that familiarity. Not only is his mother, the closest of his family allies, suffering from dementia, but his father, Rodney, though caring, is aloof and distracted by taking care of his wife. James's sister Kate, who might be able to help him, distrusts him because of problems he'd drunkenly caused in the past. Though home to see the family, James spends more of his time sitting in bars, hanging out with old friends, or just driving around aimlessly, trying to avoid everything.
Although many of the details of life in Buffalo are alternately banal or depressing, they gain in interest because of their importance to James. His narration cozies into the run-down dive bars and slush-covered sidewalks. Even as he reignites a relationship from an old fling that he doesn't even remember and is harassed by a couple of local thugs that would prefer he didn't, James is willing to keep taking one action—even dangerous ones—after the next. Buffalo makes him feel protected even from threats of physical violence. This sense of narratorial comfort, however, is always darkened by the lurking dread of James's need to finally do the deed and end his mother's suffering.
The short time frame of the events, taking place over a single long weekend, prevent any of James's various interactions from playing out as fully as they might, which, while realistic, is disappointing (especially James's final confrontation with the two goons that harass him throughout much of the book), but it does serve to keep the novel moving briskly. The quick pace is further assisted by the insertion, every few chapters, of transcriptions of clips of interviews that James recorded with various Buffalonians in a misguided attempt to become the barfly Studs Terkel of Buffalo. They provide some welcome relief from James's first-person narration, and, as they're commented upon within James's narration—he often listens to them while driving from one place to the next—they serve to help pass the time between scenes.
But, as in all coming of age stories, James does learn some things, and it seems as though these lessons will stick, even as he returns again to his life in New York. Does it really take a middle class male from the American suburbs until his 10th High School reunion to come of age? There is certainly an argument to be extrapolated from the evidence of books like this and Indecision, that the suburban educational experience, through high school, college, and beyond no longer matures a young man like it might've once upon a time. James narrates, about three-quarters of the way into the book:
As per usual in [my father's] presence, I feel like I'm eight years old again. This is unnatural, I realize, a moral failing, and this tentativeness must end, because I am the stronger man here, young, powerful, intelligent, a representative of the future, and he's old, decrepit and doddering—he's literally riding in the passenger seat of life—and it's my job to worry about him now that he lives alone.
Even if we're coming of age later and later, we still have to come of age eventually, so these stories will always be pertinent. As is often demonstrated in Ames's book, it isn't even necessarily the arc of the character that matters, but the way in which he witnesses the actions and city around him while looking for that meaning that he's been lacking; if there is ever a role for literature to play, it is to demonstrate that searching for meaning.
Buffalo Lockjaw shows not only James but several of his peers as either slowly growing up or resolutely refusing to do so. The quest, then, is to avoid coming of age in Buffalo fashion by clamping one's jaw shut and locking yourself down against life's doldrums, and instead to escape and not turn entirely inward. And that growth, in Buffalo Lockjaw, is out there for James to earn. His great realization is there to be had:
It's time for me to step up and assume my new role in this family. This is my responsibility. Nobody else will do this. Time to become a grown man. But how does one begin? Can I read a book on this topic or audit a class in adult behavior at the community college?
James, as it turns out, is something of an auto-didact, and forms his course for himself, but I encourage readers to audit James's course by reading Ames's engaging book.