The AskSam Lipsyte. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.00, 304pp.
Sam Lipsyte’s newest novel, The Ask, is another unrelenting tour de force of black bile. Set after 9/11, it follows the hapless meanderings of one Milo Burke, a failed middle-aged painter now working in development at a university in New York City, referred to only as Mediocre University throughout the book. Whereas Lipsyte’s previous dark comedy, Homeland, focused on high school nostalgia and failure, this book is about full-on adulthood failure—the failures of collegiate ambition, subsequent careers, and fatherhood.
But let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?
Perhaps by recourse to context. Now after four books, genealogical lines are showing themselves within Lipsyte. He’s taken what he needs from Philip Roth’s outlandish humor and sexual bitterness (minus the metafictional concerns and the Newark archival gestures), and combined it with a George Saunders–like brevity and humor. But whereas Saunders peels back the ribcage of contemporary American life and always finds a beating, bleeding heart, Lipsyte pulls back the bones only to find the void. Plus, where Saunders sets his stories in a slightly futuristic, absurd America, Lipsyte sets his stories in the absurd now; there is no cushy fictional distance between the world he describes and the world he inhabits. In mining this dark quarry, Lipsyte creates narrators that bring to mind David Gates, especially his great, underappreciated novel Jernigan. There is the same X-ray vision turned upon the self—where no gesture arrives without revealing the tumor of self-congratulation hidden within.
All of the ingredients that made Homeland so bracing are here: the vigorously clipped prose; the outlandishly spot-on satirical set pieces; the constantly stinging stringency of the narrator’s pathetic station in life. From Homeland, here is the narrator, Lewis “Teabag” Miner, riffing in a diner:
Newly infatuated couples are repellent. They can’t decide whether they want you to disappear or stand witness to their giddiness. They use you like a handball wall. Plus, they stink of nookie.
And here is fat, married Milo describing flirting:
It had been years since I’d flirted. I felt as though I were snorting cocaine, or rappelling down a cliffside, or cliffsurfing off a cliff of pure cocaine.
This new novel is a bible of failure. At the beginning Milo loses his development job after lashing out at a wealthy donor’s spoiled offspring. But he is soon brought back into the fold for one last “ask”—in development argot—from an old college friend, the fabulously wealthy and inscrutable Purdy Stuart. Purdy wants to make a “give” to Mediocre but it requires that Milo become his middle man, delivering money and sizing up Don Charboneau, Purdy’s heretofore unknown son by a lower-class lover from his own college days. Naturally, Purdy is now happily married and expecting the birth of a new, legitimate child. Don—now an adult and crippled from an Iraqi roadside bomb and outfitted with prosthetic legs, devices he calls his “ladies,” which are attached to and always irritating his “humps”—is out for Oedipal vengeance and recognition, and Milo is caught in the crossfire.
The “humps” nickname is an especially vile example of how everything in this novel gets renamed and cut down. The university Milo works for isn’t just third-tier; it’s Mediocre (so that Milo ends up striving to get back his Mediocre job). The dean of the development office at Mediocre is a Marine veteran nicknamed War Crimes by Milo and a coworker, and the house he lived in while becoming a painter as an undergraduate is referred to simply at the House of Drinking and Smoking.
Of course Milo has his own parenting and prodigal issues to deal with. He’s married with a young toddler son, and in the span of the novel his family life unravels with as much speed as his tormented career. I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot, except to say that Milo’s family failure dovetails with Purdy’s family failure, and bits of class rage, artistic rage, and Iraq War rage all make their appearances. Though Milo is the main drain on our pity, he gets off a few subway stops before the post-apocalyptic abyss of Don, who at the end of the novel is the only character to take decisive action.
At times, Lipsyte’s contemporary satirical riffs are Led Zeppelin–like in their solid fury; it’s as if he’s the funniest, most correct documenter of various contemporary vapors. He’s like a stand-up comedian who has decided to stop being funny and speak the truth, even though what comes out of his mouth still sounds terribly funny. Here he is on the mixture of panic and dread that fills the life of the young father when his kid has gone missing in public:
“Bernie!” I called, dipped into that familiar parental trot, the one that covers more ground than walking but does not yet reek of pure panic. It’s important to smile a lot while you maintain a steady pace and call out your child’s name in an almost jovial manner, as though it could be a game, and even if it’s not a game, you still aren’t worried, it’s happened before, though not too often, and besides, it’s age appropriate, so you don’t consider it an issue requiring therapy or, heaven help us, a pharmaceutical regimen. This is no big deal, the trot and the smile signal, though it sure would be great to locate the little scamp. But hey, the kid gives back a lot of love, and usually you’re a bit more in control of the situation, though you understand child-rearing throws its curveballs, its cutters and sinkers, too, but still, this is nothing compared to the hard work the parents of, for example, Down kids must put in, or even the folks with autistic children, where you’re doing all that special needs slogging and not even getting those sloppy Down kisses, no, your kid, he’s a regular kid, maybe with some impulse control deficiencies, or dealies, as you laughingly call them with your wife, or maybe, and you’re definitely willing to entertain this notion, especially in this era of so much entitled helicopter coddling, or whatever the term is where the children are literally enfolded in a cocoon of helicopters that entitle them to do whatever they want, because of the culture, maybe this very normal, regular, active boy, who happens to live in a social strata that condemns masculine energies in all its children, maybe he just needs to have his coat pulled, to be briefed, as it were, in an energetic masculine way, to be boxed or cuffed or whacked upside some part of him in that no-nonsense, simple folkways folk way (because throttling and such, it’s worked for thousands of years, no?) or at least persuaded in a compelling and lasting fashion that it is not okay to just dash off into a throng of Russian (gas-rich, reassembling their rabid empire) tourists and ignore his father’s cries, yes, it could be that he needs to be squared away on that score in a more visceral sense, though certainly not in the sense of a spanking or a hiding, such tactics, alas, never work, but anyway that is a separate discussion. Really, right now, you just need to triangulate on the little shit, pronto.
The book is filled with such bits—unrelentingly knowing and contemporary and therefore frightening.
Here is Milo imagining an affair with another daycare parent:
I pictured days lost in a soft white bed, us rising only to pee or nibble on some olives or last night’s stale baguette before our bodies would start to twitch with lust again. I could almost smell the high stink of our clinches.
It might be awkward with Aiden around. It would be better if he didn’t have to experience that particular cliché, the naked Mommy Friend, raw whang aflap, washing up in the bathroom or drinking from the kitchen tap.
It reads like Dr. Seuss, if Dr. Seuss had been hazed by Bukowski.
Ultimately, Lipsyte is not so much interested in plot as he is in generating scenarios for his riffs. In fact, much of the machinery of the plot is added in quickly to stitch the moments together, and this isn’t really a fault for the novel—one is more interested in the riffs, really—except that it often leaves the story feeling too forced, the architecture too visibly bolted together at times. For example, one wonders if Lipsyte really needs to yoke together his two fathers—Milo and Purdy—in such an epic parallel. One wonders if Lipsyte couldn’t have told his story more simply, let its riffs sustain its plainness. But there are certain set pieces within the novel that are so perfect, so full of bitter glory, that one forgives all of this.
In the end, The Ask isn’t quite as good as Homeland. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness. It’s a must-read that you have to put down at times; otherwise your very own life seems like a third-rate parody of overfed upper-middle class dreaming.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His fiction appears, most recently, in Arkansas Review. His personal website is available here.
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