Field Notes: I Pass Like Night, The Fruit Hunters

I PASS LIKE NIGHT

SYNOPSIS: Jonathan Ames’s fragmented 1989 debut novel, about a young man’s sexual odyssey in New York City, and his nostalgia for his quieter, small-town childhood.

CONDITION: Washington Square Press paperback, bought used from Value Village in summer 2010.

THOUGHTS: Here’s a debut novel that gives away everything and nothing all at once. Ames published this book when he was 25, and his protagonist, Alexander Vine, is only slightly younger than that. Both live in New York. I Pass Like Night is full of static, neatly contained memories—the kind that are so often the giveaway that a young writer is projecting his own life story.

What throws me in Ames’s case, however, is both his weary, Carver-esque tone—Philip Roth’s blurb calls it “poker-faced”—and the shrug with which Alexander describes his various sexual misadventures. When he’s drunk enough, he likes to get fucked by men. He picks up prostitutes and visits peep shows. He’s attracted to a bartender whose IUD has rendered her permanently infertile. Mostly, though, he sits and thinks, and sometimes regrets. I Pass Like Night is told in short, unconnected narrative shards; details and evidence pile up, and eventually Alexander’s anxious nonchalance comes to life through sheer attrition.

The flashback sequences, while finely chiseled, feel a little too safely stuck in time, and the late-breaking idea that Alexander might have contracted AIDS is an unnecessary concession to the way a traditional novel would have to operate. Mostly, though, Ames embraces the strangeness, and to good effect. Despite appearances, he pulls off a surprising sleight of hand: while Alexander feels like a dead ringer for the real-life Ames (whose recent, wonderful HBO series Bored to Death features a writer-turned-detective named, yep, Jonathan Ames), in the end, I don’t think I learned a thing about him. The author himself slipped right through my fingers. It’s almost as if he passed like… well, you know.

* * * * * 

THE FRUIT HUNTERS

SYNOPSIS: Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 non-fiction account of all things fruit: why it fascinates us, how many thousands of species are out there, and the people who devote their entire lives to eating, cataloguing, and (occasionally) smuggling it.

CONDITION: Anchor paperback, bought new from Chapters (says the receipt) in May 2009.

THOUGHTS: Quite simply, one of the most wonderful books I’ve read in a very long time. The scope of Gollner’s project is vast—he travels all over the world, sometimes in pursuit of a single type of ultra-rare fruit. There’s plenty of science, politics, and literary and religious references mixed in to show just how critical a role fruit has played at every step in our history. And with issues of biodiversity and extinction, not to mention nutrition and supermarket politics, it’s still very much an ongoing concern. There are several fascinating character sketches—look out for the horrible human being who invented the Grapple, an artificial grape-apple hybrid. Gollner is an excellent guide, too: chummy, amiable, and who never lets his growing knowledge overwhelm his curiosity.

For amateur fruit enthusiasts like me, The Fruit Hunters also provides an essential list of dream species to try and track down. (Granted, this might be more difficult than usual during an Edmonton winter.) The way Gollner describes these fruits, it’s like they’re secret passwords. Mangosteen. Coco-de-mer. DurianMonkey tamarind (also known as the ice cream bean). It’s nothing short of astonishing. As Gollner writes early on, “Willy Wonka’s got nothing on Mother Nature.” That is not hyperbole.

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