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I Pass Like Nightby Jonathan Ames
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. How is the structure of the book important to how Alexander's story unfolds? Would it matter much if the story was told in a more linear fashion?
2. Look at the italicized portions of the book. Note both their content and their placement within the novel. Discuss what they mean in the context of the book. What do we finally learn about these passages at the end of the book?
3. What is the tone of the book and how does it serve the subject matter?
4. Alexander states that he's always had a longing to be a bum. Discuss how he is connected to the bums in the novel and what this says about his character.
5. Alexander is admittedly paranoid about sickness and death, yet he knows that his behavior, especially his sexual escapades, could very well result in sickness and/or death. What can be said about this?
6. Compare Alexander's nighttime activities with his daytime persona. Think about the "Mitzvah" chapter in particular.
7. Aunt Doll is always giving Alexander advice. Explain what role she plays in his life and how she figures in his exploits.
8. In the italicized portion that follows the chapter entitled "I Wanted To Know Why," Alexander says, "I'm a natural at these things." What does he mean? How does his tone affect how we read this passage?
9. It can be said that Alexander seeks acceptance in the nightlife on the streets of New York — perhaps the same acceptance, in fact, he lacks from his family (read "You Conned Us"). What characters from the streets appear to mimic or replace familial roles for Alexander? Discuss how this is important to his character.
10. Joy is Alexander's girlfriend, and may be his one real chance at love. What other things might she represent both for Alexander and in the novel in general?
11. Discuss how sex and death are linked, literally and symbolically, in the novel. Look specifically at the chapters "Snowstorm" and "The Clinic."
12. Why does the book end the way it does? What, if anything, can we assume happens to Alexander?
AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN AMES
Q: The structure of I Pass Like Night is interesting. How did you decide to put the novel together in non-linear vignettes? What purpose did you intend for the italicized portions to serve?
A: My idea for the construction of I Pass Like Night was to have it work as a mosaic: when looking up close at a mosaic one can only see fragments, but stand farther back and a coherent picture emerges. So in the case of this novel, my hope was that in the end, Alexander Vine's story would emerge from these torn-off pieces of his life. I was 22 when I started this book and I had this romantic, dark vision of how Alexander Vine was writing I Pass Like Night. He sits at a bare desk in the Bowery and when he finishes composing his adventures and his memories into stories (written by hand), he puts them on a tiny spike, like the kind of spikes that diners keep by their cash registers for the paid checks. So the order of I Pass Like Night would then occur by Alexander lifting the stories off the spike and the one that was on the bottom, the first story, begins it all. So hidden in this mosaic there is actually a linear structure. He starts writing in the summer, after his encounter with Goldie, and from that point forward all the episodes in the recent past — interspersed with stories of the distant past — follow the seasons. And just as his doorman jacket changes with each season, so does Alexander.
The purpose of the italicized sections was to capture a single moment, a single feeling. Whereas the longer pieces are more complex. Also, I wanted to give the reader a breath, like in music. The italicized sections are a chance to pause, yet they can also be read quickly. The idea being to keep the novel flowing by changing rhythm — short chapters, long chapters, one page italicized moments.
Q: I Pass Like Night has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye. How do you feel Alexander Vine is similar, if at all, to Holden Caulfield?
A: One similarity is that both characters, though Holden more so, like to say what they don't like, what they hate. And I think both these characters learned to do this from Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Twain, I think, set in motion so many of the novels narrated by precocious and unusual youngsters. And Alexander Vine isn't as young as Holden Caulfield, or some of the others, but he shares with them the distinctiveness of having his own voice, as if this troubled youth was speaking directly to the reader.
Q: Who are some of your literary influences?
A: I'd like to answer this question by talking about the writers who influenced I Pass Like Night. From Hemingway, I stole the idea of the italicized sections. I was mesmerized by how he used them with such power and emotional effect in his first book, the collection of short stories In Our Time. It was also because of Hemingway that I tried to write the book in a clean prose style. And whenever I got stuck I often thought of his dictum from A Moveable Feast: "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." Raymond Carver, also of the Hemingway school I think, further influenced me to try to write clearly and coherently. The structure of the book was modeled after, to a certain degree, Jerzy Kosinski's Steps. The courage to not be afraid to write graphically about sex came from reading Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, and also the Kosinski book. And there was one sentence where I tried to have a Jack Kerouac-like rhythm, and in another sentence I was looking to recreate the feeling of a Raymond Chandler sentence. Kerouac's books also played a part in helping foster my interest in bums, in listening to the people on the edge of the city. These are some of the influences that come to mind.
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