Joe Jones by Anne Lamott

Joe Jones by Anne Lamott. What a bizarre novel. The synopsis is quotes pulled directly from the pages, which I’ve never seen before, and which did not give me a good idea of the plot. But I did love Lamott’s writing in Blue Shoe, so I bought Joe Jones. Lamott is “out there,” but doesn’t push the boundaries of belief. She invents her own words and phrases in ways that work beautifully, reminding readers that part of a writer’s job is to Think About Language.

Joe Jones is set in a San Francisco cafe owned by Jessie, a woman just shy of 80. Her gay grandson, Willie, who is in his early 20s, is best friends with the unlikely Louise, a waitress in her 40s. A few regular characters enter the diner, such as Jessie’s equally-old best bud, Georgia, who doesn’t speak but blows raspberries in answer. There’s Eva, who hangs around after Louise fixed her flat tire, and others. Then there’s Joe Jones. After he and Louise split up, he returned home to his mother in Hawaii. Joe sends odd letters to Louise that seem written in a haze of acid (no proof of this) but eventually returns to Jessie’s Cafe.

I read this novel aloud to my husband, and we both loved it. We laughed a lot, like when Louise notices Willie cut his own hair and says, “Willie, no lie — you look like some old deer that the others in the herd are trying to nudge gently towards the highway.” I could have highlighted so many passages, but I’ll give an example of how Willie talks about everything. In this case, he’s explaining how so many people dump off stray cats at his and Jessie’s house:

People take their cats out to the dump, chuck ’em out the window. They stay a night or two — they’re these junkyard, wino cats — and then this social worker cat comes by. She’s Harriet Tubman, you know, and she looks at her clipboard, finds out address, locates the North Star, and leads them to our home —

Notice how “junkyard” is partially italicized. Lamott does a fantastic job of indicating how her characters would actually sound, which made a great time for me when I was reading out loud! I enjoyed knowing the inflection of the dialogue and giving the characters a rhythm to their speech patterns.

I enjoyed myself particularly for the creative oddness. When Louise tries to get Eva invested in a Higher Power, Eva can’t bring herself to do it. Instead she calls the Higher Power “H.P.” or “Hewlett Packard.” Louise often references listening to what her broccoli tells her to do, which we are told on page 6 is a Mel Brooks routine, but the book is 272 pages. It’s easy to forget that broccoli was an early reference. Thus, it’s funny to read, “Willie, my broccoli’s saying loud and clear . . .” and forget what it means. There are quirks like this throughout the book. I even love that Willie and Louise say “sleeps” instead of “sleep,” that they have so many inside phrases I’m practically jealous.

It’s hard to know what one should come away with once she’s completed Joe Jones. It’s more about the people than the plot, so even though there are some loose threads, both my husband and I felt fine with that. You may ask why Joe Jones is the titular character when I’ve written so much about Louse and Willie. We can’t answer that, though we’ve discussed it. I do know that authors are sometimes vetoed on their title choices by a press who may feel something like Jessie’s Cafe, which would have made more sense, would lump the novel into “women’s fiction.”

My only concern with the novel is characters are prejudiced and insensitive when discussing gay men and AIDS. Originally, Joe Jones was published in 1985, so it was a different time and I’m willing to overlook the stereotypes. If you’re reading this review in the morning, I hope you listen to your broccoli today. If you’re about to go to bed, have a good sleeps, friends!

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26 comments

  1. What an odd, satisfying book. The first third seemed to simply be moments that gave depth to the characters, while the last two thirds did include a plot arc, although it was at times a sad one. I can only imagine they just pulled quotes for the back of the book because it would have been difficult to describe accurately otherwise. My only complaint was that the book took a few chapters to find the true voice of the characters, so it can be confusing to skip back to the beginning and be reminded of what can seem like odd behavior.

    • Yes! On the early stages Louise seemed a bit rude! Also, both Louise and Willie use the same slang in places, which is confusing and not realistic. This was especially confusing in places where there were not dialogue tags for a while.

  2. It does sound both odd and appealing. I really like the way the characters sound (it’s a tribute to the author that I can almost hear them, even without an audio narration). And the character study sounds interesting, too. I’m not surprised you had some good laughs…

  3. Despite having read and re-read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I’ve never read any of her fiction. What would you recommend starting with? Joe Jones sounds like a bit of an outlier…

  4. Glad you enjoyed this! It doesn’t sound quite up my street, but I like the HP joke. And an interesting observation about the title “Jessie’s Café” getting the book pigeonholed. I have a friend who only reads those generic chick-lit books and I like to tease her that the titles always sounds like they’ve been randomly generated (“Christmas at the Little Garden Bakery” etc), so I can definitely see why an author might steer clear of them.

  5. Sounds like a quirky little read! I’ve never read any of Anne Lamott but I keep meaning to. Question-how many pages do you read at a time, when reading out loud to your husband? I find reading out loud can be tiring, and I’m just doing pictures books for my kids!

    • Typically, I’m doing about 10 pages, but when it’s a really good book that we’re trying to hurry up and finish, like we did with Joe Jones, I’ll read about 20. When I’m done, I’m a bit hoarse and my occasionally tendency toward dyslexia really kicks in (which it does sometimes just for the fun or it, but always when my brain is tired). Just wait until your kids want mom to read to them from the chapter book–then you can say, “I don’t think so; you’re supposed to be practicing your reading.”

  6. What an interesting sounding read! I’ve never read Anne Lamott, and up until now haven’t ever been particularly interested in her writing, but this sounds like a book with very real, quirky characters. I’m glad you enjoyed it – it sounds like a great read!

  7. This does sound like an interesting one (I LOVE a book set in a diner or cafe for some reason) but maybe one to watch if it comes my way rather than one to rush out and source.

    • Yes!! Completely agree! And some people are more experimental with their art, like Jaimy Gordon in her book Bogeywoman, and others are playing, like Anne Lamott, but as long as the sentences communicate something to the reader, I love it (and thus Gertrude Stein is out in my book).

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