Book Review: You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames



by Jonathan Ames



You Were Never Really Here is a novella by Jonathan Ames, originally published in 2013, which has come into prominence again due to the film adaptation that has just come out, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Pushkin Press released the expected movie tie-in edition, which features an “extended ending,” though I only read this version so I’m not sure which part of the ending I read was not part of the first edition.

Joe is an ex-Marine and FBI agent who has fallen off the map, living a life completely off the radar, having moved back into his childhood house with his mother, and takes on odd jobs involving human trafficking. His contact, McCleary, sends him to meet senator Votto, who is running in the elections in New York and who has just gotten an anonymous tip about his thirteen-year-old daughter who was kidnapped by a stranger on Facebook several months before. Joe meets Votto, who, following the anonymous text, leads him to a brothel with a “playground,” which is what they call the places that offer underage prostitutes. As you might expect, at the playground things start to go wrong. No spoilers here...yet.

You Were Never Really Here manages to pack a lot within the extent of just under 100 pages, not just plot-wise, but mostly in the way it builds the main character and keeps the crime-novel pace up. This is mostly due to the minimalistic language Ames uses; it’s precise and to the point where action is concerned, and has a sort of Hemingwayian iceberg effect when it delves into Joe’s past and his psychology. Along the main thread of his mission of rescue, Joe’s character starts to take shape; we get snippets from his past: abusive father, guilt over his inability to protect his mother from him, trauma from his time in the FBI investigating sex trafficking cases. After attempting suicide once, he has decided he would only do it after his mother has passed away first. This, combined with his work ethic (which is not confined to just his work but his life too) of always wearing surgical gloves, never leaving a trace of himself, always using fake identities and covering his face at all times to avoid any cameras recording him, gives away the title of the book. Once he is gone, the world will never know that he was ever there.

He felt himself diminishing, a shadow around the edges of his mind, and he heard a voice say,
It’s all right, you can go, you were never really here.
— Jonathan Ames (You Were Never Really Here, p. 7)

The traumas from his childhood and his law enforcement work has instilled in Joe this sense of moral nihilism and abandon, and at times he is reminiscent of Alec Leamas, John le Carré’s iconic antihero from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In Spy, Leamas and Mundt play with the idea that the Cold War is constructed on a system where each side justifies their choices, often blatantly wrong and inhumane, based on the view that they hold the moral high ground over the opposite side. The logical escape from this, and the responsibility of knowing the ambivalence of this moral high ground, is to assign the blame on the system, with each smaller pawn (i.e. field agent) operating on an “I’m just following orders” basis that withholds the illusion of absolution. Similarly, Joe is able to live with the trauma (even if only until his mother dies, giving him permission to escape the self-perpetuation psychological flagellation) by identifying his existence as a cog in the system; a system which cannot, or will not, rid itself of sex traffickers. After all, the best customers of “playgrounds” are rich politicians. His weapon of choice, a hammer, “inherited” from his father’s abusive habits, functions as a symbol for his role in the order of things:

So it was a seamless return, and he didn’t question things anymore if it was related to his job. He now thought of it as a level playing field. Everyone shared responsibility – on both sides of the moral axis – and he was of use. A hammer doesn’t ask why it strikes.
— Jonathan Ames (You Were Never Really Here, p. 33)



For the people who have already read the book, I found it interesting the way it ends. Despite the focus on the action, which gave it legitimate credo as a thrilling crime novel, the ending was at least somewhat anticlimactic. His mission of saving the girl is left hanging, although we know enough about him to imagine that he follows through and saves her. What doesn’t add up is that Joe is not particularly changed by the end, either. The moment of change can only come when he saves the girl (meaning here, finding some hope or at least seeing in the girl a reason to go on living). The one change I can see is that he has rebelled in a way against the system. He has broken free from his “cog” identity and is pursuing a personal vendetta, no longer a hired gun.



So, in final analysis, You Were Never Really Here achieves a perfect mix of fast-paced crime thriller with the literary subtleties that are too often missing from the genre: a well constructed main character who feels real, attention to genuine inner tension, and a healthy distance from a plot-driven narrative that ends up reducing the work to one dimension. Bonus points for it being short enough to make it the perfect read on a 2-3 hour flight.



BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.