The Extra Man

A Novel

About The Book

Jonathan Ames, whose debut novel I Pass Like Night was enthusiastically praised by Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates, has followed up with a brilliant and comic second novel.
Louis Ives, the narrator of The Extra Man, fancies himself a young gentleman fashioned after his heroes in the books of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He dresses the part -- favoring neckties, blue blazers, and sport coats. But he also has a penchant for women's clothing, a weakness that causes him to lose his job as a teacher at a Princeton day school after a bizarre incident involving a colleague's brassiere. Thrust out of Princeton, he heads to New York where he rents a cheap room in the madly discombobulated apartment of Henry Harrison, a failed but brilliant playwright who dances alone to Ethel Merman records, sneaks into Broadway shows, and performs with great style the duties of a walker -- an escort for the rich widows of the Upper East Side.
The two men, separated in age by more than forty years, develop a relationship that is irascible mentor and eager apprentice, and they form a bond the depths of which neither expected. But Louis, when he's not with Henry, has fascinations that lead him to an unusual community on the fringes of the sex world of Times Square. He develops a secret life there, which he fears will be his undoing and which he must keep hidden from Henry at all costs.
A hilarious yet moving story about friendship and longing, The Extra Man is an original and unforgettable novel by one of America's most talented young writers.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1. Describe the tone of The Extra Man. What kind of novel is it? A comedy? A satire?
2. Louis Ives considers himself a "young gentleman" fashioned out of the works of Fitzgerald and Wilde. Since he is the narrator, how does his fantasy shape the novel?
3. At one point Louis says, "I felt less alone -- the whole city had sex problems." How does his attitude regarding his "problem" change throughout the book? Chart his development from his first visit to the "recession spankologist" to his final escapade with Maria. How does he feel about others with sex problems?
4. One of Louis' major conflicts -- apart from his obsession with balding -- regards his Jewish heritage. He says "their anti-Semitism and my Semitism were the major flaws in my young gentleman fantasy." How does he reconcile this?
5. What is the nature of Louis' sexuality? Consider his reaction to watching the young subway couple: "I wanted to be both of them. I wanted to be strong enough to hold someone, or lovely enough to be held."
6. What revelations might be read into his statement, upon seeing Maria naked, "It was a girl as I must have first imagined girls"?
7. Though far apart in age, habit, and attitude, in what ways are Henry Harrison and Louis alike? Why is his relationship with Henry so important to Louis?
8. In what ways does Louis disappoint Henry? What is it about Louis that Henry believes in? Discuss the possible meanings behind the awkward moment when Henry dangles his tie into Louis' navel.
9. When Henry compares his friendship with Louis to a play -- albeit a play in want of a guiding plot and structure -- what does he mean? How does he make the analogy work?
10. When Henry suggests to Louis that he "work on his soul" and "pray for enlightenment," what does he really want for Louis? How does he hope he'll better himself?
11. After sneaking a look at the forbidden photo album, Louis is saddened and touched by Henry's position in life. But how might Henry have changed his destiny? Does he really want to change it?
12. Both Henry and Louis are men of sometimes indefinable wants and needs. Of the two men, who is more likely to have those needs met in order to live a happier life, and why?
AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN JAMES
Q: New York City plays such a huge part in both The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night; it almost functions as a character in itself. What was your objective in making Manhattan such a distinctive presence? How would the plot play in Cleveland?
A: In The Extra Man, I did want New York to be like a third character. My objective was to capture the madness and vastness and anything-can-happenness of the city, and then throw Louis Ives into the mix and see how he does. I live here and it's the place that captures my imagination. It's the place that I know -- a crazy careening island of buildings and pavement and water all around, and it's a magnet for characters. Now, everywhere there are characters, but I live in New York and I don't get to travel much, so this is where I see them and meet them. I love to look at people; it's never boring. So I don't know how the plot would play in Cleveland. If I lived there, I would find stories of that city, but The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night are very much stories of New York -- of the neighborhoods, of the social strata of Manhattan, and of the endless opportunities for unusual adventures here.
Q: New York has changed so much since the early '90s, when The Extra Man is set. What do you think about the new Times Square and New York?
A: I passed many hours in the old Times Square and I don't miss it necessarily. It was ugly and garish and I often felt embarrassed for my city that this is what tourists would see when they first arrived. At the same time, the new Times Square is ugly and garish, but in a different way. I guess all businesses are about making money, but there's something so soulless about the new Times Square. At least the old businesses made money in small, humble increments -- 25 cents for a peep show -- but now these big corporate monsters are in there and they really know how to empty wallets. And so it's like what everybody says -- America and Times Square are becoming one big mall of powerful chain stores. What I did like about the old Times Square, and you can still find this in New York, was that it was a place of decadence and risk and danger. I don't climb mountains very often or sail solo around the world, but I do like to have a little danger in my life once in a while and I could find it in Times Square. So maybe it's not there anymore, but elsewhere trouble still lurks. And people need trouble. It gives them something to think about, makes them feel alive.
Q: The tone of The Extra Man is remarkably distinct and refreshingly unusual. How do you set out to create the language or the voice in which you tell your stories?
A: The voice in The Extra Man comes from this sort of odd, mildly British accent that I speak to myself in as I type out the words. I don't always use that British (to my nutty ear) voice, but I employ it quite often. I'm employing it now. I don't know why this happens, but I think it comes from reading so many W. Somerset Maugham short stories and British translations of French and Russian and German novels. That is the only explanation that I can think of. I do alter the voice, depending on who is speaking. Right now, the author Jonathan Ames is speaking. He's trying to sound like he knows what he's talking about in this Q&A. In The Extra Man, Louis Ives is speaking and he uses the British accent a little differently, because his personality is his own, which leads me to say that my narrators in both The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night are not me. They're like odd cousins or strange brothers. We share many of the same qualities, but they are very much their own persons. So they have their own voices.
Q: Were you influenced by any specific literary works when writing The Extra Man?
A: There are many books that inspired me and that were influences in my writing of The Extra Man. First off, there was Christopher Isherwood's The Berlin Stories. I wanted to make New York my Berlin, and initially I wanted Louis to be a camera, to be somewhat removed and passive like Isherwood's narrator, but that didn't quite work for The Extra Man. Louis had to be fleshed out more. But still like Isherwood's linked tales, I wanted my book to have interesting, eccentric, and lonely characters. The whole young gentleman dream came from the very books that Louis cites in chapters one and two, though I didn't necessarily model my novel after any one of those books, though I did hope that some of my dialogue might amuse people, the way I was amused by Oscar Wilde's dialogue. Structurally, in a very basic way, I modeled The Extra Man, in its use of a table of contents and chapters with sub-headings, after Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Before beginning The Extra Man, a very big influence was John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I had such a good time reading that book and laughing that I wanted to write some thing that could maybe have the same effect. Also the hero of Toole's book, Ignatius J. Reilly, inspired me to try to create an outrageous man (Henry Harrison) who rails against the world around him. Later, while writing The Extra Man, I read Anthony Burgess's Enderby books and this further encouraged me to try and finish what I thought of as my 'comic novel.' And then when I was three-quarters of the way through The Extra Man, I read in its entirety Miguel de Cervantes' The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha. And here I found perhaps the very first role model for the comic (yet serious, too) novel, and I saw parallels between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and Henry and Louis. This further emboldened me to complete my novel, to press on as best I could.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jonathan Ames is the author of I Pass Like NightThe Extra ManWhat’s Not to Love?My Less Than Secret LifeWake Up, Sir!I Love You More Than You KnowThe Alcoholic; and The Double Life Is Twice As Good. He’s the creator of the HBO® Original Series Bored to Death and has had two amateur boxing matches, fighting as “The Herring Wonder.”

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (December 3, 1998)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684864815

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review A sure-footed exploration of sexual confusion and a loopily elegant, surprisingly moving urban comedy of manners.

Rick Moody author of Purple America Jonathan Ames has always been one of my favorite contemporary writers, both for his limpid and elegant Lost Generation prose style and for his utterly fearless commitment to the most demanding psychosexual comedies. The Extra Man extends his accomplishments considerably. This is one of the most charming and alarming books of recent years.

Booklist (starred review) A miracle....This novel is not to be missed.

Francine Prose The New York Observer Ames has the one thing Fitzgerald lacked: a sense of humor...The Extra Man wins us over with its sheer energy and good will, its confidence in the ability of its own humor and intelligence to widen our ideas about the possibilities of love, and about the permissible range of inner and outer lives to which today's young gentleman may properly aspire.

The Washington Post By updating the moral education of a young gentleman, Ames has written a Bildungsroman for the end of our century.

Jeffrey Eugenides author of The Virgin Suicides Not since Harold and Maude has there been such a lovable odd couple as Louis Ives and Henry Harrison. Told in a lucid, diverting prose style, The Extra Man is a picaresque tale of a young man's sentimental education (in subjects ranging from tuxedo studs to transsexuals). In Henry Harrison, Jonathan Ames has created a truly memorable character.

The Village Voice The Louis and Henry show is honest, funny, and original, making the meaning of "human" deep and strange in the best way.

Martha McPhee author of Bright Angel Time Wonderfully odd and charming, at times riotously funny, Jonathan Ames' The Extra Man strikes a perfect balance between sympathy and comedy, drawing upon deep reserves of compassion for the strange and unnamable urges that infiltrate the lives of his two remarkable characters.

Booklist (starred review) A sort of Odd Couple for the next millennium.

The New York Times Ames makes it clear that his protagonist's sexual tentativeness and anxiety are really just flimsy covers for his passion and warmth. That's what makes The Extra Man work so well. Louis may feel as awkward as Milton Berle in drag, but inside he's really Fred Astaire -- he just doesn't know it yet.

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