You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

I love the Pushkin Vertigo series, a collection of classic, mind-bending crime novels by a variety of different authors from around the world. (My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film, is here.) While most of the books in the series were written in the early-to-mid 20th century, one or two are more contemporary. You Were Never Really Here (2013) by Jonathan Ames is one such book, a taut and compelling noir that packs quite a punch.

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The book centres on Joe, an ex-Marine and former FBI agent who now earns a living as an off-the-books operative in his home city of New York. By way of his middleman, an ex-State Trooper and PI named McCleary, Joe specialises in rescuing people, mostly teenage girls who have been lured into the sex trade through no real fault of their own. In spite of the fact that he lives with his ageing mother, Joe is to all intents and purposes a lone wolf. Living and operating undercover comes as second nature to Joe. He keeps his cards close to his chest, eschewing any unnecessary contact with those around him for fear of leaving any traceable marks. His body is a lethal weapon, primed and ready for action.

So his hands were weapons, his whole body was a weapon, cruel like a baseball bat. Six-two, one-ninety, no fat. He was forty-eight, but his olive-colored skin was still smooth, which made him appear younger than he was. His jet-black hair had receded at the temples, leaving a little wedge, like the point of a knife, at the front. He kept his hair at the length of a Marine on leave. (p.11)

As the story gets underway, Joe is tasked with a new assignment. Some six months earlier, Lisa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prominent State Senator, went missing from the family home in Albany. Now the Senator is in New York with a fresh lead on the case, but he doesn’t want the police involved; instead he wants Joe to follow it up with a view to finding and rescuing his daughter, ideally discovering the identity of her abductor along the way. The lead takes Joe to a Manhattan brownstone, the location of a high-end brothel where Lisa is thought to be working. Here’s an excerpt from the stakeout scene, a passage which should give you a feel for Ames’ pared-back yet atmospheric style. Paul, the brothel’s ‘towel boy’ has just left the house.

So Joe loped down the north side of the street and then crossed, five yards ahead of his target. He looked about. No immediate witnesses. It was a cold October night. Not too many people were out. He stepped from between two cars and right into the path of the towel boy—a thirty-two-year-old white man, a failed blackjack dealer from Atlantic City named Paul, who didn’t have much talent for anything. He was startled by Joe’s sudden appearance, and Joe shot out his right hand unerringly and grabbed Paul by the throat, the way a man might grab a woman’s wrist. Paul didn’t even have time to be scared. He was already half-dead. Everything Joe did was to establish immediate and complete dominance. (pp. 42-43)

At 88 pages, this is a short read, so I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot, save to say that the case is more complex than appears at first sight. Power, corruption and dirty cops all play a role in this gripping story of cat-and-mouse in the underbelly of NYC.  What’s interesting here is the character of Joe. At various points in the book, Ames reveals a little more of Joe’s backstory, in particular the abusive childhood that has shaped his outlook on life.

What Joe didn’t grasp was that his sense of self had been carved, like a totem, by his father’s beatings. The only way for Joe to have survived his father’s sadism was to believe that he deserved it, that it was justified, and that belief was still with him and could never be undone. In essence, he had been waiting nearly fifty years to finish the job that his father had started. (p. 23)

Joe’s father, also a US Marine, was destroyed by the experience of fighting in the Korean War. Having entered the fray as a human being, Joseph Sr. ultimately emerged as a bitter and twisted creature, a ’subhuman’ of sorts. In many ways, the nature of Joe’s tortured relationship with his now deceased father has left him with a deep need to gain some kind of vengeance on the evils of the world. There is a sense that Joe remains mindful of the requirement to keep himself in check, to maintain the vigilance and control he must demonstrate in order to preserve his current existence.

This is an impressive slice of noir fiction; quite dark and brutal at times, but that’s all part of the territory with this genre – Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer, and he knows how to use it. On the surface, Joe is slick, tough and merciless in the face of the enemy, but underneath it all he is rather damaged too. There is something mournful and a little bit vulnerable lurking beneath that hard exterior, these qualities coming to the fore on a couple of occasions during the story. Ames also adds one or two touches of compassion to his portrayal of Joe. There’s a very gentle scene near the beginning of the book where Joe’s mother makes him some eggs for breakfast, the pair communicating with one another without any need for words.

While the book ends at a particular point, it feels as if there is scope for another chapter in Joe’s story, a further instalment so to speak. If that happens at some stage in the future, I will gladly read it.

Ames has also written a novel in a very different style to this one – Wake Up, Sir!, a satire which sounds like a modern-day riff on the Jeeves and Wooster story. You can read Gert Loveday’s enlightening review of it here.

My thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy of You Were Never Really Here.

40 thoughts on “You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames (Pushkin Vertigo)

  1. gertloveday

    I don’t know whether it’s because I read the Jeeves book and then read a bit about Ames’ other activities, but I have the impression that he’s a bit of a ventriloquist and having a lot of fun being one. The first two quotes here struck me that way too, a knowing pastiche of tough-guy writing.
    Thanks for the link to our rv.

    Reply
    1. MarinaSofia

      That’s an interesting thought. I’ve thought that of Anthony Horowitz and some other writers as well, that they are incredibly clever at mimicking and slightly subverting traditional styles.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you might be on to something there. Your comment just reminded me of a book I’ve had on my wishlist for ages, The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel Winter. It’s a collection of three novels, each written in the style of a famous crime writer (Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Agatha Christie, I think). I really must get around to buying it!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, this is more conventional than the European entrants in the Vertigo series (well, certainty going by the ones I’ve read so far). Nevertheless, it’s a tight little story, and Ames has got the style down pat.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    Funnily enough, it’s the description of the eggs with his mother that has me convinced to read this! I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Big Night, but it has a similar scene and it’s one of my favourite endings to a film ever. I’ll be really interested to read a different take on it – and the noir appeals too. These Pushkin Vertigo titles are very tempting!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have seen that film, but it was such a long time ago that I’m struggling to remember much about it other than the restaurant setting. Time for a rewatch. I think! That scene between Joe and his mother just adds a touch of compassion to Joe’s character, in a way it humanises him. So even though we see him committing unspeakable acts, it’s possible to feel a degree of sympathy for him. He’s not a bad person underneath it all, just damaged and very determined.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite meaty for such a short piece. Ames does a good job of fleshing out Joe’s character and there’s enough action to maintain the reader’s interest (well, this reader at least). I enjoyed it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It’s a little different to the European entrants in the Vertigo series, closer to old-school American noir fiction in some respects but that’s no bad thing in my book. It certainly worked for me.

      Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    Thanks Jacqui. I hadn’t heard of this one, and as you know I’ve been reading the Pushkin Vertigo line. I tend to avoid stories about FBI/CIA agents so I’m on the fence about this one, but the fact it’s Vertigo will make me take a second look. I read Clinch BTW another Vertigo title but disliked it. The only one of the series I disliked so far.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The FBI connection probably wouldn’t be too much of an issue here as it’s in the background, part of Joe’s backstory if you like. I think you’d like the style — plus it’s very short so if you don’t take to it you won’t have wasted much time. You may have seen my comments above, but there’s a film in the works too with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role of Joe — it should be good.

      That’s interesting about Clinch. I’ve avoided it as something about the set-up didn’t particularly appeal to me, possibly the fact that the central character is (or was) a boxer. I think that put me off a bit. I’m very keen to get to Dard though, he sounds excellent.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like it, Caroline. It’s very tight — there’s not much down time and yet Ames does enough to humanise Joe. It’s a interesting inclusion in the Vertigo portfolio, possibly assisted by the fact that Pushkin had already published another of his books, Wake Up, Sir!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I love my forays into noir too, one of my favourite genres! It’s a good little read, quite satisfying for such a short novella – I could have happily read something twice this length.

      By the way, I’ve just had to rescue your comment from the spam filter. There’s definitely something up with WP. I contacted them after the problems I’d experienced last week and they sent me a form to complete. As a result, they’ve made some tweaks in Akismet which they hope will prevent it from happening to me again. You might want to do the same thing.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, even though I’ve read 5 or 6 of them, this is only the second one I’ve reviewed so far. Sometimes I find it hard to write about these novels without revealing too much about the plot.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    I think what put me off this was (as has been said above) the sense that Ames was aping particular styles with his rather contrasting novels. Horowitz is a good comparison. From your review, though, he seems to have done this well.
    A film by Lynne Ramsay sounds like something to look forward to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand your hesitation over this one, Grant. That said, taken on its own terms, I thought this worked really well. It’s a gripping little story and the style feels spot on.

      Lynne Ramsey’s an interesting choice of director and I’m hoping she’ll bring an indie sensibility to the production. It’s good to see her directing again.

      Reply
  5. buriedinprint

    What an interesting little volume. You’ve found such treasures via Pushkin Press. How long have you been following their work? (His use of a hammer recalls a novel I read recently by Canadian poet, George Eliott Clarke, which retells the story of a brutal murder of a taxi cab driver with a hammer in 1940’s Maritime Canada in George & Rue – a beautifully told but brutal story. Even if one does not know how to use a hammer, it can be surprisingly effective in terms of lethal blows, I gather.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I think I’ve been following Pushkin Press for about 5 or 6 years, mainly the Pushkin Collection series with authors such as Antal Szerb and Stefan Zweig. The Vertigo imprint is a relatively new venture for them but it’s been remarkably successful to date. Well, I’m basing that judgement on the responses from various bloggers and readers on social media, mostly positive as far as I can tell.

      I’ll take a look at that novel you mention – thanks for the tip.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I loved Vertigo, the novel behind the Hitchcock film. There are some interesting differences between the two, so the book is still worth reading even if you’re familiar with the movie. I also loved Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia. It’s a very intriguing mystery with an ambiguous ending. I thought it was excellent, although it might prove a little frustrating for readers who like their mysteries to have clear resolutions at the end.

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    88 pages makes it a bit more tempting, but like Grant I do wonder if there’s an element of pastiche here. Also, are baseball bats cruel? I get what’s meant, but it’s an odd image.

    I do rather like the fact that our deadly dominant hero is a 48-year-old who lives with his mother. I somewhat wonder if there’s an element of intentional undermining of the character or genre expectations there.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there is an element of pastiche here, but it’s good pastiche if you see what I mean. I could have happily read a lot more of this, maybe another chapter in Joe’s life or another, longer story in a similar style. I see your point about the baseball bat image, but that passage worked with the context of the novella – it didn’t strike me as odd or jarring at the time.

      That’s a great point about the contrast between Joe’s homelife and our expectations of the conventional hitman. It’s one of the reasons why I felt the characterisation was so impressive for such a brief story. The scene where Joe’s mother cooks him some eggs for breakfast is very touching, and it really adds something to the reader’s view of him as a human being.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s the same Jonathan Ames. I only found about this when someone mentioned it during a Twitter conversation about the review. It sounds like a great show, so I’ll have to check it out.

      Reply

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