One of the ironies regarding Sam Lipsyte’s work is that a man who has written three novels and two short story collections since 2000 is often called literature’s king of slackers. But if you read his work, you can see how he got that reputation. From the drug-addled protagonists of VENUS DRIVE, his first book of stories, to the doughnut-wolfing development officer in his 2010 novel, THE ASK, Lipsyte’s characters are potty-mouthed shirkers and grumps, most of them male, who have difficulty with alcohol, illegal drugs, fidelity, or some combination of the three.
These chronic malcontents would be unbearable in the hands of an inexpert writer. But a constant joy of Lipsyte’s stories is that they offer more than just a litany of complaints and ineffectual responses. His prose can be surprisingly lyrical, and in THE FUN PARTS, his new collection of short fiction, Lipsyte gives starring roles to characters with whom you might not expect him to empathize.
"The best stories in the book are those in which Lipsyte deviates the furthest from this formula. But he more than makes up for his narrow focus with his gift for one-liners and his thoughtful, energetic prose."
Some of the best and most vivid writing in this collection is in the first three stories, all of which were originally published in The New Yorker. “The Climber Room” is the story of Tovah Gold, a 36-year-old pre-K teacher who yearns to write poetry. She adores the children at the Sweet Apple school where she teaches but until recently hasn’t wanted a child of her own. One of her favorite children at the school is Dezzy Gautier, whose father, Randy, made a fortune in the software industry and is one of the school’s biggest donors. When Randy hears of Dezzy’s affection for Tovah, he demands that the school change Tovah’s hours so that she will be on duty whenever Dezzy is at school. Tovah’s outrage over Randy’s actions doesn’t stop her from accepting the lucrative side job of watching Dezzy one Saturday while a tuxedo-clad Randy attends an unspecified society function. The writing in “The Climber Room” has moments of disarming tenderness among its more outrageous passages. What could have been an exercise in bitterness turns into a thoughtful meditation on life’s inevitable disappointments. As Randy says of himself and Tovah near the end of the story, “We’re grown up and broken, just like everybody else.”
The protagonist of “Deniers,” the best story in the book, is Mandy Gottlieb, a 30-year-old woman who teaches cardio ballet at the Jewish Community Center in her New Jersey town. Her father, Jacob, is a Holocaust survivor who now lives in a nursing home and asks after his dead wife every time Mandy visits. Like her ex-boyfriend, Craig, Mandy is a recovering drug addict. After one of Mandy’s ballet classes, a young man in a hooded sweatshirt comes on to her in the hope that she can help him reconcile his skinhead past. The title applies to all the principals in the story, each of whom yearns to airbrush the horrors, self-inflicted or otherwise, out of his or her life.
Other stories in THE FUN PARTS are more typical Lipsyte fare but are equally accomplished. “The Dungeon Master” is the story of tensions among teenage Dungeons & Dragons participants, the leader of whom is rumored to have once hit another kid with a baseball bat and to have shown a propensity for flashing strangers. “This Appointment Occurs in the Past” is about a 30ish man who is having an affair with his ex-girlfriend’s married mother (shades of the Woody Allen story “Retribution”) and visits a fellow stoner college friend who claims to be dying. In “The Worm in Philly,” an unemployed man with a drug habit decides to write a children’s book about the boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler and enlists the help of a stoner buddy’s sister, an editor who is interested in the narrator for more than just his book proposal. And “The Wisdom of the Doulas” features a male doula with attitude, drug problems and a unique method for helping a demanding client clear her milk ducts.
Did you notice all the drug addicts among the book’s characters? The biggest weakness in THE FUN PARTS is its limited range. There are too many people battling drugs and alcohol, too many affairs, too many characters reconciling with aged parents, too many rich patrons pushing around members of the lower socioeconomic classes. The best stories in the book are those in which Lipsyte deviates the furthest from this formula. But he more than makes up for his narrow focus with his gift for one-liners and his thoughtful, energetic prose.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on March 8, 2013