Book review: You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames
My rating: five stars

Falling behind on both reviews and my reading for the year, so I decided to pick up the pace a little with a short, sharp shock of a thing: Jonathan Ames’ novel(la) about a blunt tool, used in the most unseemly of circumstances.

With the right tools you can get ANYTHING done.

And HOLY FUCK but did it put things back into gear.

In under one hundred pages, Ames manages to construct a grim portrait of politics, policing, war, sex and family, with no extraneous detail or padding. The book is Gatsby-like in the excision on display: it’s polished and honed, as much a weapon as its focus, the beleaguered Joe – a survivor of wars and abuse, who has tried to counter the forces at work in his brain by reducing his footprint, becoming invisible in the world.

He felt himself diminishing, a shadow around the edges of his mind, and he heard a voice say, It’s all right, you can go, you were never really here.

Unless he’s needed.

Unfortunately, where he’s needed is the world of sex-trafficked minors, where he acts as a smash-and-grab man, removing victims from peril by whatever means necessary. The logic behind those means is always considered, but it doesn’t render the necessary violence any less shocking, mind.

Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone.

Suicidal ideation is Joe’s constant companion through this text: it’s the result of a lifetime of abuse, of shitty deals and horrific visions. It’s a mark of how hollowed this capable man – a former Marine, a former FBI agent – has become. The violence he so often sees and executes – and is so dispassionately, terrifyingly described – is ultimately aimed inwards. Whether it actually reaches its target is beyond the book’s remit, but the reader is not left with great hope for Joe’s longevity beyond the jobs he’s tasked with.

He was aware that he was not completely sane, so he kept himself in rigid check, playing both jailer and prisoner.

As is generally the case with noir tales, the sparse language sits atop a convoluted story: there’s more going on here than meets the eye, and Joe, the muscle-for-hire, the man who’s seen too much, is soon enmeshed in powerful machinations that strike far too close to home. The ongoing internal narrative as Joe attempts to figure out what’s what (while avoiding the next goon with a gun) is particularly well handled, and the drip-feed of facts are enough to ensure the reader is shocked by revelations which continue right to the text’s end.

Blue-collar Jesus has ISSUES.

I followed the book with the film adaptation, directed with taut excellence by Lynne Ramsay. Though it changes certain elements of the text – it’s just as open-ended, though in a different way – the portraiture of a damaged man is still as masterfully on display. The film takes about as long to watch as the book does to read, so it’s certainly running on the same tight leash. It’s different, sure, but Joaquin Phoenix brings Joe to life in a hammer-wielding way that fit very well with what I envisioned in the text.

So: both the book and the film are worth a snoop. The book edges out the film, certainly, for both viciousness and, I think, an odd purity of form – as well as a slightly better ending – but both are excellent takes on the same story. I have had an excellently unsettling afternoon with both.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.

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