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!

22 Comments

  • April 1, 2009 - 6:15 am | Permalink

    First of all, thanks to Gayle for hosting this Book Club. I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have read it on my own. I say that because the Alzheimers theme would have stopped me – too close to what I’ve already been through. My father-in-law died four years ago from this horrible disease and it’s hard, still, to think about. That aside, I think Ames shows great promise and I’d look at his next book, to be sure. The taped interviews that were inserted kind of got on my nerves. I’m thinking it was another way to show how life doesn’t go the way one plans and everyone has a story. I also don’t think the sister’s story was developed enough. Unless the point was that she was in complete denial concerning her mother. I understood James not wanting his mom to continue living with this disease.
    Gayle, I think you’re right when you say the author may have tried to accomplish too much but over all, I’m glad I read the book.

  • April 1, 2009 - 7:49 am | Permalink

    Fantastic review! I think I appreciated this book a little more than you, although I do think you made a good point about the author trying to do too much. What I really liked was how Mr. Ames compared the aging Buffalo to James’ aging mother. I thought he did a fabulous job of showing James’ feelings about each thing and how he was trying to get the “good times” back. Here’s my review:
    http://bookingmama.blogspot.com/2009/04/review-buffalo-lockjaw.html

  • Kim V
    April 1, 2009 - 8:33 am | Permalink

    Excellent review Gayle. I really enjoyed this book. And Julie I liked your review too — especially the part about Buffalo being a character in the book. The vinettes from the townsfoks were sometimes a a little out of place, but overall I enjoyed them. Ames has a great sense of humor — the scene where Costello tries to give Ellen his pneumonia had me laughing out loud!
    Did anyone else wonder about the title? I know he used the phrase to describe the facial expressions of some folks walk in the snow, but lockjaw is also a travel industry term for leaving for arriving in one place and leaving from another. Maybe a metaphor for James inner journey? Or maybe I’m reading too deep.
    I highly recommend this novel and will look for more by Ames.

  • Lisa
    April 1, 2009 - 9:36 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed James’ struggles with all the facets of his life but I agree that Ames tried to accomplish too much. The issue of his sister being a lesbian was really undeveloped. I also felt like the dynamic between James and his sister, in regards to the the way they were treated by their parents growing up, was not fully developed. In fact, I thought it was used as an excuse for James’ behavior. I did think Ames did a great job describing Buffalo and exploring the mother’s decline. I also liked that things weren’t wrapped up with a tidy bow at the end.

  • marcia hardell
    April 1, 2009 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    I was prepared not to like Buffalo Lockjaw but I ended up liking it as I found the ending satisfying. I liked the author’s descriptive style but found James’ immature behavior and his drinking really annoying. I especially liked the tie in with the book title at the end. Interesting reading- I liked being pushed in new directions I might not have gone! marcia in Ct.

  • April 1, 2009 - 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this book, too, but it did leave me feeling a little unsatisfied. I think James was a character that I couldn’t relate to very well. His character and the tone of the writing kept me at arms length through out. I also think that is a symptom of the underdevelopment of almost every plot point.
    I did enjoy the tidbits about Buffalo, and I liked the interspersed interviews. I thought the tone of those was more relaxed. In all, I think this is an interesting first book.
    You can read my whole review here:
    http://thebluestockings.com/2009/03/buffalo-lockjaw/
    Thanks, Gayle, for hosting this lovely book club!

  • April 1, 2009 - 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed Buffalo Lockjaw, having read ‘Still Alice’ recently, it felt like a continuation of a storyline (Alzheimer’s and the impact on family as the mom deteriorates). I agree with many of the reader’s, some characters could have been written with more detail but I liked the references to Buffalo. Watching James struggling to come to terms with his mother’s illness and his life were the main focus and you felt compassion for his life situation. At times I wanted to shake him – he was a weak character (although this made the book, right?).
    You can read my review and author interview here:
    http://bookwormwithaview.blogspot.com/search/label/Buffalo%20Lockjaw
    I also would recommend this book, if you are looking for a discussion worthy book.

  • Miriam
    April 1, 2009 - 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Gayle for giving us the opportunity to read this interesting book. I found it slightly depressing but liked the ending note of hope. I did get exasperated with James and his drinking. I did like the title and the references to the cold and clenched teeth and Buffalo Lockjaw.

  • April 1, 2009 - 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Just to add a comment – I also liked the title of the book!

  • April 1, 2009 - 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone say anything about the cover? I really liked it!!

  • April 1, 2009 - 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I liked the cover. Thought it was a nice visualization of some of the themes of the book – alcoholism, winter, Buffalo…

  • Kori
    April 1, 2009 - 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to like the book but I just couldn’t get myself into it. The topic was depressing, though very real. I hope I am never in the situation where I would have to decide on a loved one’s mortality. I didn’t really connect with James and felt certain aspects about him were all over the place and not tied in with the story such as his relationship with Corinne and his friendships. However I gave the book to a friend who is from Rochester, NY and she loves it because of the similarities between how she grew up in Rochester and how James and his friends grew up in Buffalo.

  • Darby Lohrding
    April 1, 2009 - 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Gayle,
    I liked your review! I found the stumbling plots a tad confusing and often thought I had missed the main mark when I’d take on the scent of a new trail.
    I’m glad you too had the same reaction!!!! I wasn’t sure I was “getting” this book because of the complexity of the crossing plots for I kept thinking for you to pick this book it surely must be a winner! Now that I know you too had your up’s and down’s with this book I feel better and now I can say I did enjoy the read…I just need to let my desire for organization to take a hike!
    Thanks so much for doing this for all of us!
    Darby
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  • Michelle B
    April 1, 2009 - 10:52 pm | Permalink

    I also wanted to like the book, but I really struggled to read it. I really disliked the inserted interviews – I couldn’t figure out what they were until far into the book.
    I felt the frustration James had with his family in dealing and acknowledging his mother’s Alzheimer Disease. (Maybe I’m just too close to the whole Alzheimer situation with my MIL suffering and my FIL dying less than three weeks ago.)
    I think I need to shelve the book and go back to it in the future – seeing how everyone else (almost) liked or was glad they read it.
    Thanks for including me in the discussion!

  • Carol
    April 2, 2009 - 8:46 am | Permalink

    I had a similar reaction to many of the other readers. I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but am glad I read it. I just wished that James could have treated himself (and his friends) as kindly as he treated his mother. With her, he seemed to shine, while he seemed to be wasting the rest of his life.
    I liked the ending. It was something of a surprise, but within the realm of what we knew about the characters.
    Thanks for giving a new author an audience.

  • sheila
    April 2, 2009 - 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry to be coming into this conversation late in the game. I found much of this book troubling. I agree mostly with Jessica’s review… most of the characters were undeveloped and because of that, I felt an arms length from them all. Usually I do not mind reading a book about people I cannot relate to, but this time, I also felt like I did not know these characters well enough to care or relate to. My favorite parts were the descriptions of Buffalo (I had to laugh from time to time about those) and the interviews. These seemed like more “real” characters in some way. Ironically, after reading this, I picked up “Still Alice” which Mari referenced and that book took my breath away. It is a beautiful and fully developed family study of a family dealing with their 50 year old mother coming down with Alzheimers. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in how another fictional family copes with this terrible disease.
    and Gayle, thanks for keeping me reading things out of my “comfort zone”

  • Lisa
    April 2, 2009 - 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I think I related to James because he reminded me a lot of my brother-in-law. He knew he was a screw-up but didn’t have the skills to pull himself up out of it. It seems as if he’s in a point in his life where he would have allowed his mom to influence him but now she can’t help and he’s keenly aware that his neediness is what caused her to be in this position.

  • Sarah
    April 2, 2009 - 10:20 pm | Permalink

    I apologize for the delayed post — I just finished the book today. When I started “Buffalo Lockjaw,” I didn’t sense that I would really like it. Boy was I wrong. I was quickly drawn in and thought it was a very solid read. It is a wonderful book group selection because there is so much to discuss.
    While I know some people didn’t like the myriad themes, I really liked this aspect of the book and found it more interesting than I think I would have otherwise. So much was packed into such a short time frame. The Thanksgiving weekend is such a loaded event for so many people; even those of us with fairly healthy and functional families could relate to the intensity of the four plus days. I loved that the book took place then. I also thought that Ames did a marvelous job of evoking Buffalo. He reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates in all her depictions of harsh upstate NY, and how fundamental the climate/landscape/etc. is to the characters who live there.
    I agree that the story of Kate should have been more developed. Her lack of focus on her mother, and her persistent good mood — even giddiness — over the weekend seemed unrealistic to me, even if she was in denial about her mother’s condition.
    While I respected James for not dwelling on his previous 4 year relationship with Mara, and I respected the author for not delving into that too much, I simultaneously thought there could have been a *few* more details, as it was clear that that failed relationship was significant in influencing James’ current behavior.
    An excellent choice, Gayle. Thank you!

  • Becky
    April 3, 2009 - 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Gayle, thank you for allowing me to read this wonderful book, and I am terribly sorry I am late to the party. 🙁 I enjoyed the book immensely and I love the touchy subject of euthanasia, as my family members and I have all discussed that if we were ever to be in an unfortunate situation as James’s mom, we would like to go. It was interesting to read about his struggles with this as well as “growing up”; not measuring up to his sister, figuring out how different he is now, from his Buffalo past/friends, and how similar he is as well. I enjoyed the somewhat-twist ending, and how it played out. The book went slow in some parts, but in the parts here he was with his mother, and describing the environment she was in.. I was always curious about what would happen. The book certainly made me curious to visit Buffalo. While a somewhat depressing book, it ended on a positive note. I’d give the book a C+ or a B, in a grade scale.

  • April 6, 2009 - 3:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve always heard the term open jaw for plane tickets that fly into one city and out of another.

  • Lara Ivey
    April 6, 2009 - 9:47 am | Permalink

    I, too, am past posting about my thoughts and feelings about this debut novel. Due to a death in the family, I am just now chiming in.
    Let me start with an interesting moment that occurred for me while reading Buffalo Lockjaw. We were driving by a nursing home and I couldn’t brush off the fact that I felt like I had just recently been in a nursing home. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out where or when. Then it hit me…it was from Greg Ames’ novel. That feeling I had was pretty much how I felt during most of the book. The characters and situations were real.
    I did connect with James and his feeling of letting go of memories and moving on. I was particularly moved by his description of Thanksgiving and how his parents were the center of this event. That family tradition would be forever changed. My own parents play that same role. It really got me to thinking about how my life will change at some point—and it could be in the near future, we never know. It makes me ache just thinking about it. Actually, when James was having Thanksgiving dinner with his mom at the nursing home he said, ”She would see the sadness in it.”– the sadness in NOT being with your real family. Interesting that the one person who would have seen the sadness (his mother, Ellen) is now the one who can’t see it.
    I felt sorry for James and how he just needed someone to talk with about the situation. Everyone in his family seemed to be going along as if nothing were changed. That’s how I saw the interviews that were peppered into the novel. Life continues on around you. Things keep going.
    The other piece of this novel that I really appreciated was the letters that were written by his mom. I can totally relate to this, too. My mom is still good about that. She will just write to show me that she loves me. She also does the same for my children…the “just because I love you” kind of letter. This isn’t necessarily what James experienced, but it made me think about the ones I receive. The handwriting in those letters speaks to me, too.
    Some people have felt like the characters weren’t developed. Some of them weren’t. However, I feel that James and his thoughts on his mother were right on target for me. I totally understood what he was trying to convey and it made me empathize with him on many levels. I would highly recommend this book for my friends to read. Thank you to Gayle for including me on this book journey!

  • April 8, 2009 - 10:56 am | Permalink

    I see I’m not the only one who is late to the party. I finished the book on time, but have really struggled with my feelings for the book. I guess I didn’t like it. For all the reasons that have been mentioned all ready. And I feel bad that I didn’t like it becuase I understood what the author was trying to do. It just didn’t do it for me. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it, so thanks Gail. I think I tend to read books that I know I”m going to like, so it was good for me to get outside of my comfort zone and try something new.

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