Thursday, March 24, 2011

"Buffalo Lockjaw," Greg Ames (2009): emotional freeze-out in American Siberia

The phrase
upstate New York has become artistic shorthand for a kind of American emotional exile, a place where it seems the weather, the economy, and alcohol combine to defeat the hopes of successive generations of Irish and Italian families.

When the lake effect snow starts piling in off Lake Erie, usually early in a cold and gray November, it does not seem too harsh to compare upstate's present condition to an American Siberia, where the only real currency of the young is the hope of getting out before they put in thirty years on third shift at the bottle factory or the bar next door to it. Bottle Factory, come to think of it, would not be a bad name for one of the beer joints in Greg Ames's debĂșt novel,
Buffalo Lockjaw (Hyperion).

The title refers to the facial condition achieved out-of-doors during an upstate New York winter, but it's equally as effective in describing the spiritual condition of the novel's main character, James Fitzroy, a still-young (or young enough to care) member of one of those families facing hard choices in hard times. There are traces of paralysis throughout this story in many of Ames's characters, and not a slight tilt of alcoholic haze to their perception of the way things are or ought to be.

Buffalo Lockjaw for moral or spiritual uplift will be hard for those who haven't spent a dark night of the soul buzzed and freezing on State Street, in Buffalo or any upstate New York town. The experience of just "living through it" -- whatever the difficulty may be -- is enough for these characters.

In other, less bleak settings, much would be made of that current pop-psychology catchphrase, "seeking closure." Characters would have options. Fitzroy and his family don't have the luxury, or the money, to see it that way. Nor, at the end of
Buffalo Lockjaw, does anyone claim to be a "survivor" of anything. It's just what people do, every day, after the bars close. Fitzroy tries to convince himself of ideas that sound as though they could come from any chipper and well-meaning self-help book, but here the practicalities of achieving those life-affirming goals seem still beyond his grasp:

"Start living, I tell myself. That seems to be the only moral in this fable. Live now. Don't wait for a future that might never come. Don't trade this moment for a false promise of security, or a pension, or an afterlife. But saying 'live now' is about as practical as telling a depressive to 'just be happy.' How do you actually do it? Maybe what it requires is a shift in perception. Okay, fine. And how do you bring that about? Because if you're thinking about being in the moment, you're not in it."

Such circular reasoning is self-defeating pop-culture speak, ideas reflected in fun-house mirrors pretending to be thinking. But it's a very contemporary and American approach to life -- 21st-century upstate New York really isn't 19th century Siberia after all -- which makes the desperation and hesitation in
Buffalo Lockjaw familiar to anyone facing difficult family issues like illness and aging.

The novel's story is set against the barren landscape of drugs-and-alcohol and tells the very personal struggle of families in the process of losing their battles with time, with hope, and with each other. Fitzroy describes seeing his 56-year-old mother with the effects of early-onset Alzheimers in the senior-care dayroom of "The Elms": the disconnect between the facility's elegant-sounding name and Ellen Fitzroy's appearance is heart-breaking and sharp.

"Today she's wearing baggy gray sweatpants and an oversized rainbow T-shirt that belongs to someone else. Where are all her sweaters? She's in a line-up of wheelchairs near the door: a motorcycle gang whose members all ran out of gas at the same time ... my mother looks at me, blinks. She's wearing her spare glasses today -- the good ones must be missing again. The fingers of both her hands are interlocked, as if she's playing a silent game of 'here's the church, here's the steeple.' Around her neck she wears a cr
umb-crusted harness , a padded horseshoe, so she can lean her head back and snooze, just another weary traveler on a cross-country flight."

Greg Ames

The self-aware narrator Fitzroy, nearing thirty, seems to know that at The Elms, as well as in his own family, the unwritten future will bear a frightening resemblance to the too-real present as well as the long-gone past. There are echoes of Russian writers -- Chekov, maybe -- whose harsh landscapes loom as shaping and inescapable forces. How does one escape fate in a place where time itself seems frozen? Self-awareness only makes the knowledge more painful:Where can I find beauty in this situation? Fitzroy muses early on. I read somewhere this is a good exercise for cynics.

Ames found the same dilemma in writing
Buffalo Lockjaw. In a recent Artvoice interview the Buffalo native outlines the struggle he had writing and re-writing the novel, trying to find the proper story to tell. He found his solution by focusing not on the plot, but on the characters: "I think that Buffalo Lockjaw is sort of about the passage from selfishness to selflessness. James is certainly not selfless, but I thought of it as this Buddhist idea: I wanted to write an entire book about a guy who takes one step. After 275 pages, he takes a single step toward being a better guy."

Much is made about the south as a regional influence on its authors. In
Buffalo Lockjaw, Ames, who left upstate for New York City ten years ago, has written of upstate New York a kind of "northern Gothic" also centered on family and fate, death and survival, dissolution and resolution. It's a first novel that captures its woozy characters as they are, and sometimes even as they see themselves. Just as satisfying as finishing a story of an unsettling adventure in a Southern town populated by its ghosts and ancient widows, after the last pages of Buffalo Lockjaw the reader is one of the few who get to leave. The novel's characters aren't that lucky.

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