INSIDE BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY
Graduate student has high-profile debut novel
By : Eric Coker
The road to Binghamton literally proved to be the turning point in Greg Ames’ writing career.
The graduate student was on a Greyhound bus from Brooklyn to Binghamton last March when he received a phone call saying he had a book deal with Hyperion.
“Everyone thought I was crazy because I rode a Greyhound bus here twice a week for two years,” Ames said with a laugh.
The novel that led to Ames’ book deal, Buffalo Lockjaw, will be released nationwide March 31. Hyperion is giving it a big push: The major publishing company has named the book its “paperback pick” for April.
“Hyperion is very selective about the fiction it publishes, but Buffalo Lockjaw immediately jumped out at me,” said Leslie Wells, Hyperion executive editor. “Greg Ames does such an amazing job of blending dark material with humor.”
Buffalo Lockjaw follows James Fitzroy as he returns to his native Buffalo for Thanksgiving. Fitzroy, a wise-cracking 20-something who has an unsatisfying job in New York City as a greeting card writer, comes home knowing his mother is dying from Alzheimer’s and that many of the people who dragged him down early in his adult life remain in the city. James learns about himself, and grows in the process, as he tries to reconcile what has happened in his former home.
“A lot of stuff in the book that you think is autobiographical is fictional and some of the things you think are fictional are autobiographical,” said Ames, who is originally from Buffalo and has a mother with Alzheimer’s. “I usually say it’s all true and none of it is true.”
The book began as a short story that was published in 2002 in The Sun magazine.
“I just realized I wasn’t done with it yet,” said Ames, who has had many short stories published. “I spent five years trying to write this and I didn’t really have a clear idea what the story was. I spent a lot of time with false starts.
“I rewrote this book so many times,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s even being published. I tinkered with it obsessively through the years.”
Ames takes the reader inside a nursing home, as James visits his mother and hopes for a glimmer of recognition from her. Ames said he was originally concerned that some of the scenes would be too intense for readers.
“If you don’t want to go into a nursing home in real life, you won’t want to do it in a book,” he said. “But I thought, ‘This is the story I feel I have to write.’ Even if it is fiction, it has to be honest. … People who have dealt with a situation like this might recognize some of the circumstances James finds himself in.”
Those scenes also detail the heroic work of nurses, leading James to say, “Every day a nurse sees truths that would crush a weaker person.” Ames learned about the profession while watching his mother work as a nurse.
“I grew up thinking of health care and education as two hugely important things that someone could do,” he said. “As I kid I would visit my mom at clinics, shelters and the University at Buffalo School of Nursing. I’ve always admired nurses.”
The city of Buffalo also has a starring role in the book. People familiar with the city will recognize the streets James drives down, while Buffalo icons and landmarks such as Jack Kemp, Ani DiFranco, Jim Kelly and Tim Hortons doughnut shop are mentioned.
Ames provides some lightness and comic relief between chapters with anecdotes from people James has come across in the past as part of an oral history project he abandoned. Musicians, bartenders, Bills fans, business owners and others chime in about the past, present and future.
“I think of the oral history sections as palate cleansers,” Ames said. “Along the way you get some heavy material. I wanted to break it up to give the reader a breather. It also adds to the flavor of the book.”
Ames, who graduated from Buffalo State College and has taught writing at Brooklyn College, is seeking his PhD in English with a concentration in creative writing. Coming to Binghamton allowed him not only to commute from Brooklyn, but let him focus on creative writing while working with faculty members such as John Vernon, Jaimee Wriston Colbert and Joe Weil, he said.
“I had pretty clear ideas of what I wanted to do when I got here, and they helped me do that,” Ames said of his professors. “Binghamton has been great for me. I like coming back here. Everyone is so nice.”
Vernon called Ames “a terrific writer” and “the most hilarious novelist I’ve ever taught.”
“He mixes humor and tragedy so well, so completely, that you begin to wonder why you ever thought they were separate things,” Vernon said. “He doesn’t just take criticism well, he devours it, he makes it work for him. You point out a problem and suggest a solution and Greg invariably finds his own. The best young writers are like the best athletes: They take the ball and run with it.”
Ames is already halfway through his second novel, which he describes as “a big fat comic novel that has nothing to do with the first one.” He will spend much of April doing publicity for Buffalo Lockjaw at events in Buffalo and New York City, and hopes a reading can be scheduled in Binghamton. The book will also be published in Germany, he said.