March Book Club: BUFFALO LOCKJAW by Greg Ames

LockjawThis month, EDIWTB book club participants read Buffalo Lockjaw, the debut novel by Greg Ames. Buffalo Lockjaw is about James Fitzroy, a man in his late twenties living in Brooklyn who returns home to Buffalo for Thanksgiving to see his family. His mother, Ellen, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer's. His long-suffering but incommunicative father faithfully visits his wife every day, but refuses to talk to James about what he's truly feeling. His lesbian sister, also in Buffalo for the holiday, is similarly uncommunicative about her sadness about the loss of their mother. So James stumbles through the holiday, visiting his mother, hanging out with his burned out friends from high school, and torturing himself with philosophical questions about euthanasia and whether he should put his mother out of her misery.

There are several themes going on in Buffalo Lockjaw: James' inability to grow up and take responsibility for his life (professionally and personally), the tragedy of James' mother's illness and the issue of mercy killing, and the backdrop of Buffalo and its own sad decline. Ames definitely covers a lot of ground in this book.

Ames is a talented writer. I was repeatedly struck by his powers of observation and description, and I found the book very readable. Sometimes the prose was very lucid and literal, and sometimes it veered closer to stream of consciousness, like in this passage where Ames describes James' state of mind after he returns home from Buffalo:

The worst hour of the day is four a.m. Lying on your back, sober, staring at a hairline fracture in the ceiling, haunted and shaken by ghosts, you just want to cut your own head off. You have a full day tomorrow and this awful brain won't shut off. Enough! No more words. No more language. No more meanings and interpretations…. The poverty of language. Impossible to convey truth, suffering, beauty. We're getting closer to victory in our war against terror. Is that a shortcut? I promise I'll be good. Just sleep. Flick the switch. Shut it off. The day is over.

There are a few subplots that Ames touches on but doesn't fully resolve or explore, such as James' relationships with two women in the book (Corinne and Michelle) and his deadbeat friends, and his alcoholism. Ames also sprinkles throughout the book transcripts from James' "urban ethnography" experiment – a series of interviews with a number of Buffalonians from all walks fo life – which are interesting, but don't really connect to the story.

While I enjoyed this book, and am definitely glad that I read it, I think that it suffers from trying to accomplish too many things at once. Too many plots, too many writing styles, too many themes. Ames could have streamlined it a bit by narrowing his focus and making his writing style more consistent. I think that would have made the book more successful.

That said, I enjoyed Buffalo Lockjaw and would recommend it to those for whom the plot sounds intriguing. It's not perfect, but it's a good read.

To the EDIWTB readers who participated in this month's book club, please weigh in!