Those were the days. Jamie in junior high.
His first night in Jakarta, in the mid 1990s, a literary American expat Jamie had met that very afternoon escorted him to a nightclub catering not to tourists but a local crowd. Can you say kismet? Jamie promptly missing, only to reappear the next day pleading that he had fallen in love. The old Jakarta hand rolled his eyes, but the truth is that Jamie's fling was to last literally to his dying breath. The glamorous stranger in this story was the irrepressible Rendy Bugis, titular head of a family of minor Sulawesi royalty, in years to come by turns restaurateur, innkeeper, and (as Madame Bonita) the chatelaine of his own wildly popular Cage aux Folles.
But for lack of a documents, Jamie and Rendy might well have set up together in the U.S. But when Immigration turned Rendy down for a Green Card, he shrugged and wondered out loud why Jamie couldn't move to his country. As Jamie told me the story, he said OK in a New York heartbeat.
Known throughout his life as Jamie, Henry Grady James III of Houston was the author of two niche novels and a half dozen volumes of nonfiction, plus scores if not hundreds of hard-nosed reviews, off-beat profiles, and bravura, often peremptory literary essays that cry out to be anthologized. (For an instant sampler, you could do worse than enter his name in the search engine of the New York Times). I never knew him to list several additional shelf inches of books he ghostwrote or coauthored on C&W royalty on the road, on crumbling cities lost to time, on British eccentrics.... A classicist by training, he never cut ties to the legacy of Greece and Rome. One of his last published pieces, for the Wall Street Journal, took the reader back to Athens in 431 B.C. for the inauspicious opening night of Euripides' Medea. One of the last projects he toyed with the idea of was a translation of the elegies of Sextus Propertius.
For jamiejamesauthor.com, Jamie hand-picked an anthology of favorite articles, with live links, but what the URL brings up last I looked is a page of blank Asian women falling out of their underclothes. (How quickly they forget. Sic transit gloria mundi.) For his books, a search on Amazon will do the trick. I'd single out The Snake Charmer (Hyperion, 2008), a biography of a know-it-all herpetologist whose obsession with an elusive serpent in the wilds of Southeast Asia cost him his life. Of his essays, my top choice would be "My Faulkner," in American Scholar (Summer 1999), part laser-sharp lit crit, part self-portrait of the memoirist as a young lad. Young Jamie puts in a personal appearance, summering with his grandparents in Oxford, Mississippi, in the heart of the region known to world literature as Yoknapatawpha County. Relations between the households of Faulkner's mother and Jamie's maternal grandparents were neighborly; and Jamie remembers how at the elbow of the grandfather he called Pop, he once laid eyes on the novelist himself, drunk before lunchtime.
Don't try this at home. Jamie promotes his finest book. (Good as it was, "The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe" didn't live up to its title. What could?)
The force of will, he had. The money flowed from shoestring expense accounts, when he got lucky, or out of his seldom generous fees. It helped that Jamie had zero interest in bucket-list Grand Tour tourist traps. No one who knew him from New York would have pegged him for the outdoorsy, adventure-travel type. Yet he repeatedly set his sights on deserted pockets of the Third World: Angkor Wat while a lone archaeologist might still have the place to himself; Machu Picchu when the daily tally of visitors was reckoned in the low dozens (not to mention the fact that the Shining Path was back on the move). In a population center like Beijing or Buenos Aires or Jakarta, Jamie's quarry might be the Chinese "Bad Boy" actor and filmmaker Wang Shuo; the blind fabulist Jorge Luis Borges, on whom he dropped in unannounced for tea; or the reclusive dissident novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, a Nobel Prize hopeful sometimes apostrophized as the Indonesian Tolstoy (this was before Jamie knew a word of Indonesian, which he later spoke with what my ear detected as the ghost of a Texas twang).
A hard worker, a crack researcher, but no perfectionist, Jamie was never one to romanticize the literary life. In 2011, the Indonesian journalist Uma Anya asked him what was the most pleasurable thing about writing. "Nothing," he replied. "It is all hard. There is a momentary pleasure in finishing some piece and liking it but then, pretty soon, you see how it could have been better."
And what, Anya followed up, is the hardest thing about writing?
"Getting paid," Jamie replied.
Ah, yes. Getting paid. "No man but a blockhead ever wrote," Samuel Johnson famously opined, "except for money." Yet between more-lucrative gigs, Jamie devoted untold hours to recherché fancywork for small literary magazines, which, punctual or not, might as well have compensated writers out of petty cash. Well-wrought sentences, be it said, were by no means the only coin of Jamie's generosity. On the quiet, he helped youngsters in Lombok get a decent education. And he pitched in promptly when the earthquakes in August 2018 left the local mosque a shambles. Providentially, his own house had been spared, though others on his street were not.
As fellow polar bears, Jamie and I would survey the shrinking ice cap of print media, I typically with Virgilian regret (sunt lacrimae rerum), he with a cranky stoicism (it is what it is). In particular, he despised academic attitudinizing and political correctness.
Well, what could you expect? When we started out, our world was a very different place. We first met when he cold-called me, a very junior editor at Connoisseur, to peddle that Borges portrait I've mentioned, which he had piggybacked onto a Sports Illustrated assignment to profile some polo champion in Buenos Aires. According to The Glamour of Strangeness, he had contracts from both publications in hand when he flew south. I say no. As I clearly remember, he wrote the Borges piece on spec, and only brought it to me after The New Yorker and Vanity Fair unaccountably turned it down. He even had the sangfroid to say so.
Gone but not forgotten: Jamie's homepage at www.jamiejamesauthor.com.
"Responsible opposing viewpoints," Trueheart concluded, "assuming they exist, are welcome." I wonder if Jamie ever saw this lick of fine Horatian satire. I would say it was right up his alley.
I remember no confetti when Jamie left for Indo, and his reappearances were generally low-key, too, centered on editorial conferences perhaps relieved by a night at the opera (I remember organizing a Met Falstaff at his request). From home, he'd send up the occasional flare—totally matter-of-fact, applying no sweet talk at all—to ask if I'd file a reader review on Amazon to boost sales.
Where facts fail, spin speculation. Rimbaud in Java, a gem.
We last met in the fall of 2018. Since moving to Maui in 2011, I'd fantasized about a rendezvous sometime when we were both in the lower 48 or maybe in London or Berlin or some other plausible European capital. I'd also suggested he might break up a flight back to Indo with a layover in Hawaii. But Jamie made it crystal clear that he had no interest in the Aloha State (insufficiently exotic) and elsewhere, professional obligations (publishers, research) and family reunions left him zero time to socialize. I realized that if I wanted to see him again "on this planet" (my mantra, that phrase), the traveling would devolve to me. And honestly, why not? I'd never been to Indonesia, overrun as its wonders might be.
In August 2018, barely a month before my scheduled departure, major quakes rocked Lombok, leaving 259 dead and buildings shattered. Though with misgivings, I barreled ahead anyway. Tourism had fallen off a cliff, and displaced families by the hundreds were living in tent cities. The island seemed at the same time deserted, adrift, and Edenic.
No sooner had I landed than Jamie delivered two bombshells: "I'm a smoker now," he confessed. "Never in the house. And I've converted to Islam."
Converted? Who knew Jamie was a believer at all? He explained that there were bureaucratic and family reasons.
With the big stuff off his chest, he was free to chauffeur me to an elephant park, where he snapped my picture riding bareback. He introduced me to Rendy's nephews, teenagers pleasantly on a planet of their own, and to fellow American expats, to varying degrees fluent in the local language but homesick for conversation in their mother tongue. We took a seaside path to the beach, where he was on friendly terms with the local kids, who, he said, had adopted him and liked to hang out at his house. We flew to Java for a few days in Yogyakarta, where we caught some shadow puppets. And we talked literature. He reassured me I could tackle Faulkner beyond the child's play of As I Lay Dying. Then I flew off to Bali with introductions that instantly flowered into lasting friendships.
Jamie and I were to have met again in February 2020, when I'd be back in Indo with my wife, mainly for snorkeling in the Coral Triangle. At first, the idea was for the three of us to meet up in Bali's still-magical hill town of Ubud. In January, I think, Jamie wrote that he'd recently been through hell with typhoid fever. And after that, there had been radio silence.
Jamie in his Lombok lair, globe ever at the ready for easy reference.
We visiting snorkelers from Maui were still onboard the Gaia Love in Raja when a mutual friend texted me with the news that Jamie was gone, from unknown but natural causes. Several days later came a harrowing follow-up. Jamie had not be blessed with an easy exit. But Rendy had been there. Moving mountains, Rendy then managed to fly the body from Bali to Lombok and lay Jamie in earth before fourth prayer on the very day of his death, as sharia law requires.
I'll leave you with about half of the last of Jamie's emails to land in my inbox.
Dear Matthew, good to hear from you! What a cheerful report you send me. Joy in your life! There's something we don't hear about very often these days. Like you, I let the news wash over me without leaving a trace. It hardly seems real, as you say. Can our world really be passing away into oblivion? There is a certain worldly wisdom that decrees that people have always been lamenting the end of Life As We Know It, the self-pitying reaction of people of a certain age (ours) to the loss of certainty in the world that made them.
When I was a teenager, Dover Beach made a huge impression on me. I memorized it on my own initiative. Arnold was reacting to the decline of conventional religious belief. As I understand the poem and the poet, I think he believed that literature, specifically poetry, would replace Christianity as the mass spiritual force in human life, providing a connection with the divine. I made literature my religion, which was possible to do at a time when the mass of people read literature. Not everybody, of course, but there was a consensus that "great" literature provided an access to wisdom of some sort, a connection with a heightened reality beyond the perceptible universe -- a concept that goes back to the first cuneiform scratchings. Or something. But with the decline of a consensus belief that anything at all is true, it leaves us ... well, on a darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night ...
... and now you bring Lincoln in the Bardo to my attention, a book that appears to address all these issues in a way that literally harks back to the earliest wisdom literature. I will pick it up, though the problem isn't that brilliant writers are not addressing these issues, but rather that they have no influence on the intellectual discourse. There is no intellectual discourse, where alternative realities are so easily manufactured and propagated, and the mass of people are content with these fabricated sick fancies that lack any reality-based content. Not merely content, they defiantly reject a fact-based alternative.
I am definitely getting in over my head here. I think what I'm saying is that Chicken Little is finally being proved right.
Well, this message is a mess, but I send it off to you now.
A mess? Not really. I miss him.