In his debut novel, Buffalo Lockjaw, Greg Ames shows us the unexpected: beauty amid the jags of upstate winter, and grace during a mother’s slide into the maw of dementia. And, astonishingly, humor.
On leave from his job at a greeting card company in New York City, slacker-addict James comes home to Buffalo, to celebrate Thanksgiving and to help his taciturn father pack up the family house. He also makes daily trips to Unit D, where nursing home attendants use a machine to hoist his 56-year-old mother from bed to wheelchair and back again. A former nurse, Ellen Fitzroy spoke out in favor of physician-assisted suicide before Alzheimer’s slowly stole her words. Convinced his mother wouldn’t want to live this way, James brings along a copy of “Suicide for Dummies” and secretly hopes to muster the courage to end her life.
While in town, James falls back into old habits with his loser high school buddies – hilarious in their beer-soaked inertia – and draws weary, here-we-go-again looks from his father and successful sister Kate. His checkered history makes it all too easy for the family to rebuff James’ repeated attempts to discuss euthanasia as a family.
Ames manages to mine both comedy and ache from the inevitable family tension, as when James longs to act like man with his father, “smoking cigars and eating bacon, whatever the hell grown men do together.” But most powerful are James’ bedside visits to Unit D, in which Ames bring the anguish of a diminishing disease to shuddering life.
Minutes slow as frozen syrup. Silent suffering. The crushing loss of dignity. She wrote all about this. She treated people in this condition. She stood by their beds, spoke kindly to them. And now she’s here.
Award-winning journalist Laura T. Ryan covered the Central New York literary community for The Post-Standard daily newspaper in Syracuse for more than 11 years. These days, she toggles between two worlds: freelance journalism and fiction writing.