If charm were snowflakes, Jonathan Ames' "The Extra Man" would be a blizzard. In this gentle and utterly disarming comedy, young Louis Ives heads for Manhattan after he's bounced from his job at a New Jersey private school when he's caught trying on a colleague's bra. Manhattan (where he is inspired to move by the watercolor of the Washington Arch on his battered paperback copy of "Washington Square") seems just the place for Louis to live out his fantasy of being a fine, serious young man about town, an F. Scott Fitzgerald character come to life. But Ames' subject here is how our desires get in the way of who we'd like to imagine we are.
Instead of a clean, modest and affordable residential hotel where he will be treated with the deferential, admiring respect due a young gentleman, Louis winds up sharing a cramped and filthy apartment with a most unexpected roommate. Seedy and dapper, Henry Harrison is an unsuccessful elderly playwright who acts as an escort to a circle of rich women, who keep him in free meals and theater tickets, overlooking the stains on his blazers and ties. Henry has a long set of eccentricities and an even longer set of outrageous opinions, and despite the casual slights he directs at his new young roommate, Louis becomes very fond of him. When the two of them are sneaking into the Met, or scouring the thrift shops for ties, the novel is a graceful little hymn to living on the cheap in the big city.
The most startling parts of "The Extra Man," though, deal with Louis' topsy-turvy sexual orientation. He's attracted to women, but nearly all his sexual partners are the "queens" who frequent a Times Square transvestite bar. For Louis, the dream of being a woman is the easiest way of attaining the grace he dreams of for himself. Feeling that Nick Carraway -- let alone Gatsby -- would be a stretch for him, he dreams of being Daisy. Ames treats Louis' guilt over his sexual encounters lightly, glancingly. Louis may be disgusted with himself, but we never are. And Ames avoids the sordid netherworld clichis that usually rule in any novel that ventures into the sex industry. Louis' encounters with the queens and peep-show dancers are the novel's most beautifully compassionate passages -- sharply etched moments of unexpected human contact that are slightly sad without once feeling pathetic. Nothing about "The Extra Man" feels expected except the pleasure you very quickly realize Ames is going to keep on providing until the final page. Reading it is a bit like seeing the well-dressed older women who sometimes shop Manhattan thrift stores -- an apparition of grace in the damnedest place.