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This feature by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 21, 1998. All rights reserved.

In Town: `Extra Man'

On a typical Saturday in Princeton, Louis Ives, the fictional creation of novelist Jonathan Ames, is accustomed to strolling up to Nassau Street from his home on Park Place.

"He stops at Micawber's Bookstore, greets the hardworking proprietor, and browses. He is one of the legions who browse and rarely buy, but the proprietor appreciates the young gentleman -- his dignified manner, his wearing of a tie."

Lunching at his favorite restaurant, the Annex, Ives explains how "I wanted them to be able to count on me appearing at the Annex on Saturdays. It was like being a force of nature: a robin red-breast who returns to the same tree every spring; a young gentleman in a blue blazer at the same restaurant every Saturday."

However when Ives, a Rutgers graduate who teaches at the Pretty Brook Country Day School, is discovered in the faculty lounge trying on a faculty member's brassiere, he loses his job. Expelled from this "Princeton paradise," Ives is inspired by the illustration on the cover of his paperback copy of "Washington Square" to try his luck in New York.

Now author Ames returns to the real Micawber Books as the guest of that "hardworking proprietor" to read from his comic novel, "The Extra Man," published in August by Scribner. He comes to the new store (next door to the original) at 114 Nassau Street on Thursday, October 22, at 7 p.m.

In a phone interview from New York, where he also works as a columnist for the New York Press, a teacher at the Gotham Writers' Workshop, and a performing storyteller, Ames stresses that Louis Ives "is not me."

"I've done a couple of tours of duty in Princeton, both Town & Gown," admits Ames, a member of Princeton's Class of '87, though he denies he ever ate as regularly at the Annex as his fictional hero. But he was certainly known at Micawber.

"Micawber Books was such a fixture of my Princeton days. I was constantly going in there and looking at books, often not buying books because I didn't have any money. And after I finished as a student, that was where I would still meet book people," he says.

Ames grew up in Bergen County, where his father was a salesman, his mother a high school special education teacher. An editor of his high school newspaper, he arrived at Princeton with an eye on taking creative writing classes and became a student of Joyce Carol Oates.

"It was kind of like a dream came true quicker than I expected," says Ames, explaining that the novella he wrote for his senior thesis became his first novel. "A friend asked to read the novella, then showed it to an agent. I sold it a week after I graduated. It was my dream to be a writer, but I was christened one before I expected," he says.

Ames first novel, "I Pass Like Night," was completed in 1989 and published in 1990, when he was just 24. After spending some time living in Paris, he moved back to Princeton to work on a second novel. Recognized as "a celebrated young local author," he worked as a taxi driver at the Nassau Street taxi stand. "My former professors would walk by and we'd talk. And I got a lot of reading done." This time the writing did not go as smoothly. Abandoning his second manuscript, he moved to New York to "buy time" and attend Columbia's graduate program in fiction writing.

The time, experience, and chronicles of urban adventures which he publishes in his New York Press "City Slicker" column, eventually paid off in "The Extra Man."

When the fictional Louis Ives arrives in New York, he tries to move into a residential hotel suitable to his "young gentleman" status. Yet, confronted with the reality of rents, he moves into what is possibly the cheapest rental in the city, a bed in Henry Harrison's cockroach-infested, one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up on the border of the Upper East Side and Harlem.

Harrison, an aging author and eccentric who squires rich ladies as their "extra man," instructs Ives in the fine art of living the charmed life in New York at virtually no cost. Ives takes a phone sales job for an environmental magazine by day, and by night, he guiltily explores his own confused impulses in the city's cross-dressing sexual underworld.

Now 34, Ames also performs as a storyteller at the nightclub, the Fez, a performance space beneath the Time Cafe on Lafayette Street, near the Public Theater. In January he will perform his one-man show, "Oedipussy," at P.S. 122.

Ames is reluctant to compare his own fiction with that of his celebrated teacher, Oates. Yet he does not hesitate to recognize the generosity of their bond. "She encouraged me. That really is the main thing I learned from her," he says. "She helped me believe in myself and believe in my voice. That encouragement that a fiction writer can give to a student is what I've tried to do as a teacher."

-- Nicole Plett

Jonathan Ames, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street, 609-921-8454. Free. Thursday, October 22, 7 p.m.


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