by Philip Connors
Sam Lipsyte hasn’t always had it easy, despite an auspicious debut. His first book, a collection of razor-sharp stories called Venus Drive, came wrapped in blurbs by Padget Powell, Edmund White, Robert Stone, Robert Olen Butler, and Gordon Lish, among others—too many to fit on the book’s back cover—and was named one of the twenty-five best books of 2000 by the Village Voice. Lipsyte’s next book was a novel, The Subject Steve, a deeply sad yet somehow hilarious exercise in manic dystopia that appeared poised to catapult him into full-fledged book-world stardom, except it happened to be published on September 10, 2001, and plummeted into obscurity before it had a chance to register on the culture’s radar, where circuits were just then overloaded. A damn shame, too, and not merely because the book was a wicked satire of millennial America but because it was prescient—too prescient for its own good, probably. “These goddamn countries were exporting horror and they had to be stopped. Maybe invaded, even,” the narrator thinks after watching a film about airplanes hurtling out of the sky. Whole sections of the book are given over to meditations on torture and media synergy, plenty enough to have qualified Lipsyte as a dark prophet of a new age, if anyone had been listening. We were too busy pondering the horror of airplanes hurtling out of the sky.
The novel Home Land (2004), Lipsyte’s third book, suffered for its predecessor’s sales figures. Despite its being arguably the funniest American novel of the decade, three-dozen or so New York editors passed on the opportunity to publish it, or were forced to pass by the bean counters in the suites waving copies of the numbers for The Subject Steve. Home Land found a home first in the UK with Flamingo and only later as a paperback “original” from Picador in the States. Composed as a series of unpublishable updates to its narrator’s high-school alumni newsletter, it became a cult hit by sheer force of prose personality, as if Lipsyte had channeled a justifiable bitterness into the most ribald and scabrous monologue of the new millennium:
It occurs to me . . . sitting here composing this latest update, that someday, if and when the collected works of Lewis Miner ever see the light of day, some futuristic editor-type might attempt to assemble these dispatches in a certain manner, to, for example, tell a story, or else effect some kind of thematic arrangement of interwoven leitmotifs: Work, Love, Masturbation. . . .
This would be a grave mistake.
What’s all this storytelling stuff, anyway? Stories pour out of us daily, and most of them might not unfairly be lumped under the taxonomic heading: More Boring Than Your Neighbor’s Spork Collection. Ever notice how whenever anybody says, ‘Hey, have you got time for a story?’ or ‘You simply must hear this story’ or even, in that down-to-business style of today, ‘Quick story’, you find yourself wishing some wheezing and pustular people-snatcher would burst through the wall and carry you off to some dank cave to feast on your viscera?
There’s a reason you wish this.
Nobody likes a story, especially a good one.
Lipsyte is fond enough of this to recapitulate it, in more succinct form, in his newest novel, The Ask, now out in paperback: “Stories were like people. We pretended they all counted, but almost none of them did.”
Lipsyte’s narrators prefer an eloquent self-deprecation, aware that telling their stories is an act of outrageous hubris. As in Homeland, “‘Pretentious mediocrity must have a place in this world, or why would Nature allow for it?’ [Lewis] Miner asks. ‘Each of us walks to the beat of a different drummer. It’s just that some of these drummers suck’.” But from beneath the self-loathing riffs bubbles a profound sadness, like caustic magma. Yes, these characters are funny, Lipsyte seems always to be saying, but their clowning masks a deep insecurity—in some cases maybe even a grief that verges on the unspeakable. Their lurid smiles are painted on their faces to camouflage the masks of despair carved in them by stupid choices, bad breaks, or the sudden death of someone they can’t live without—maybe even all of these at once.
It may not be entirely louche to find elements of autobiography in all of Lipsyte’s fiction. In an anthology of essays on the subject of caring for family members through illness or death,* Lipsyte once admitted that he’d made a mess of his life before he’d reached the age of twenty-five. He’d come home to live with his mother and straighten himself out after “a lot of bad drugs and bad decisions made in the interest of the bad drugs,” and as he was pulling himself together his mother shared the news that she’d had a recurrence of her breast cancer. “I wondered who was going to ease my mother through this awful time while I was out in the world rebuilding my humanity,” Lipsyte admitted. “I was sort of relieved when I realized it was going to be me. Why knock yourself out trying to resuscitate your life when you can cling to somebody else’s?”
Once you’ve read and absorbed this relatively unknown and heartrending essay, you can’t help but find its echos everywhere in Lipsyte: in the junkie who mixes his mother’s cremains with his smack before shooting up in Venus Drive; in the eponymous Subject Steve, whose health-insurance company informs him that he’s maxed out his lifetime benefits even as he’s dying of an unknown disease; and in Lewis Miner, who admits that after his mother passed away he’d lunged across her hospital bed and “kissed her cold dead calves.” No matter the story he’s telling, Lipsyte is always laughing and crying simultaneously. The laughter is impossible to miss; the crying shows itself more subtly, in the runny face paint of his teary-eyed clowns.
If, in each of his first three books, Lipsyte wrote from the point of view of the bewildered offspring of flawed—or unjustly dead—parents, then The Ask marks a departure in that the narrator, Milo Burke, is burdened less by the generation before him than by the one after. There need be no worry that this shift will turn Lipsyte’s perspective saccharine. Consider Milo’s description of his four-year-old son Bernie as the two of them wait for Bernie’s babysitter to arrive and whisk the kid off for the day: “A few seasons in Christine’s cement yard with Queens County’s puniest toughs and Bernie had the strut of an old-time dockside hustler. It was hard to imagine the boy completing kindergarten, remarkably easy to picture him in a tangle of fish knives and sailor cock under some soft-rot pier.”
The story at the center of the novel concerns Milo’s trials as a middle-class American, development officer at a mediocre university in New York City, “slab-bellied father,” balding and undersexed husband, half-hearted devotee of Internet porn, and denizen of a world where the smart-aleck office temp extemporizes on the decline of empire: “America . . . was a run down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging-market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.” These are the novels first words, and they announce a journey fueled mostly by stylistic panache. Now that Don Delillo has drifted into the writing of austere philosophical inquiries half-disguised in the outerwear of fiction, Lipsyte is arguably the most energetic phrase-maker on the American scene.
Early on Milo loses his job over some ill-advised words to the daughter of a university donor, words judged to have constituted hate speech. Milo does not dispute the charge: He cops to his crime and is shown the door. With his days now free, he wanders the neighborhood where he lives in outer-borough New York. He haunts the local donut shop. He tries to be a proper father to his son, unsure of what would constitute success. His life has slid into terminal drift. He surveys what he sees on the streets with rueful sociological insight: “A man who looked like me, same eyewear, same order of sneaker, charged past. They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.”
Soon Milo is called back to the job from which he’d been fired, given the task of nailing down a particular “ask” from a potential major donor to the mediocre university. The donor, a college friend of Milo’s, has specifically requested Milo’s services. The appearance of this apparition from his past reminds Milo of the life he’d once dreamed for himself. He’d wanted to be a painter, wanted a life of creativity—something purer than a life of consumption and breeding—but he’d given up. Instead he wanders alone through a marriage with a wife he suspects of having an affair with a gay office colleague, and a dismal career that hangs by a thread. Purdy, his old college chum, arrives on scene with ulterior motives only dimly perceived by Milo. Purdy’s illegitimate son, Don, is just back from the Iraq War: bitter, enraged, equipped with two titanium legs he calls “my girls,” courtesy of a roadside IED. Somehow Milo is supposed to assuage the mistrust felt by Don for the father he’s never known; Purdy fears that his son, the product of a youthful liaison he’d just as soon hide from his wife, will come whirling into the present like the IED that maimed him and slice to shreds the life he’s crafted for himself. If Milo is successful he’ll secure “the give” from Purdy, bequeath the university a major chunk of change, and retrieve his job from the shame of his previous actions.
These are the rudiments of the plot—actually, this is the plot—but it’s never plot that drives a Lipsyte novel. The engine is always in the language. Having just reread the summary above, it sounds to me like an outline for a novel by John Irving or Philip Roth. Lipsyte shares far less with their (admittedly disparate) methods than with, say—and here let us play that old literary game of bastard offspring—Kurt Vonnegut and Barry Hannah, masters of everyday absurdity and twisted syntax. The defining traits of Lipsyte’s style are the looping arabesque, the sudden swerve, and the abrupt stop. And if Hemingway’s style at its purest owed a great deal to the simple word “and,” Lipsyte’s sentences generate their coiled and sneaky power through its calculated absence.
He salts his books with familiar characters, repeating motifs: It can be an entertaining game to find the links from one work to another. The Subject Steve’s best friend, for instance, turns out to have a tavern named for him in The Ask, and this is merely one of the more obscure winks. It’s impossible not to keep a mental catalogue of the fake books (Tao Jones: A Poem Cycle, Favorite Recipes From the Mossad), newsletter names (Gimp Snatch—for handicap fetishists), cheese-rock bands (Spacklefinger), and album titles (Barbecue Pork Class Suicide, Sporemonger) sprinkled across the stories and novels. He never fails to make of the inanity of modern branding something snappily perverse. Repetition, that tried and true comedic strategy, is of course among Lipsyte’s bag of tricks, as is a healthy dose of scatalogical absurdity; Milo describes a painting by a former college rival this way: “A river coursed through a verdant gorge. The sky bled rich reds and blues. In the mossy foreground, a nude woman tongued the anus of an elk.” As often as not the laughs result from the sudden subversion of an earnest description or feeling.
Toward the end of the The Ask, Milo tries to imagine what has become of Don, whose sudden disappearance remains, for the moment, a mystery. Milo chooses to picture him on holiday somewhere in Europe:
Maybe Don would finally know that fallen joy, the empty liberation, of drinking an espresso or a crisp white ale and then strolling along some worn battlement where young men once lay in heaps, hacked and gored by halberds and axes and pikes, smashed by siege stones, and the women and children and old men lay nearby in other shit-streaked heaps, raped, dead of fever, all this slaughter just a little historical entertainment between cafe stops, the horror far in the past, bound up in modes of thought and styles of hosiery humankind would never abide again.
In that one simple phrase, ‘styles of hosiery,’ Lipsyte cuts against the grain of the preceding litany of horrific death, in a manner that briefly scrubs away the horror and makes it almost unreal—except of course it’s not unreal, and certainly wouldn’t be for Don, either, the Iraq War veteran intimate with scenes of human suffering Milo can never know. The clown smiles; the mask cracks; the tears run. Milo knows the score: “Perhaps I pictured this idyll just to avoid the truth, which was that Don was probably never going anywhere.” Every so often, Lipsyte’s narrators meet the truth head-on.
*An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, edited by Nell Casey (William Morrow, 2007).