(Photo: Robert Reynolds)
About halfway through Sam Lipsyte’s comical, prickly new story collection, The Fun Parts, comes “The Worm in Philly,” a narrative wound around the nameless junkie son of a sportswriter and his desire to pen a children’s book about the middleweight boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler (“Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler?” he ponders. “Why not?”). The story contains all the Lipsyte standards—absurdity, crudeness, punchy dialogue, and a strange, underlying sweetness. It also weaves two elements of the author’s personal life into the text: the well-known sportswriter/children’s author father (Lipsyte’s dad is Robert Lipsyte), and the moment when the narrator realizes nobody has any interest in pursuing his project:
“What about the book?” I said.
“The advance,” said Cassandra. “Here’s your advance.”
She pulled bills from her bag, tossed them on the table.
Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, suffered from an unfortunate publication date, September 11, 2001, and flopped so badly with the general public that when he completed his follow-up, Home Land, he couldn’t acquire US distribution. And though things eventually worked out—Home Land finally found paperback publication, and the author has since released another novel, 2010’s The Ask—this brush with failure seems apt, in a way, for an author whose stories repeatedly provide toeholds for similar situations. Dating back to his 2000 collection, Venus Drive, Lipsyte’s strong understanding of those existing on the fringe allows his narratives to crackle with an uneasy vigor. As such, the struggles of has-beens and never-weres flood The Fun Parts. Tovah D’Agostino, the part-time preschool assistant in “The Climber Room,” is a failed poet. The male mother’s helper in the witty “Wisdom of the Doulas” finds himself marginalized by his employer to the point where he takes desperate measures to regain his stature. And the namesake of “Ode to Oldcorn,” once a famous shot-putter, now rolls into town to party with a bunch of teenagers, declaring, “I want all the beer in your town … And I want teen poot, if that’s available.”
While the thirteen stories in the collection are not intentionally linked, like in the aforementioned “The Worm in Philly,” most find a thematic spine in their exploration—both closely and peripherally—of family bonds. In these tales, parents often come across as aloof, cruel, or manipulative. Doctor Varelli, the father of the title teenager in “The Dungeon Master,” calls his children “puppies,” and fawns over them as if a fanatic, rather than an authoritarian. Similarly, the parents of an overweight boy in “Snacks” pressure him to lose weight while simultaneously neglecting to help him achieve said goal. And, returning to “The Climber Room,” the character of Randy Gautier, adoptive father to Tovah’s young student, Dezzy, uses his power and money to influence the world around his daughter, controlling the schedules of daycare employees by dangling the carrot of an annual donation in front of their faces.
This parental scheming slinks into the relationships between Lipsyte’s adult characters and their aging progenitors, as well. “Nate’s Pain is Now,” one of the book’s strongest stories, chronicles the day-to-day of a once-popular author of drug memoirs:
I had a good run. Bang the Dope Slowly and its follow-up, I Shoot Horse, Don’t I?, sold big … My old man, the feckless prick, even he broke down and vowed his love. But as a lady at a coffee bar in Phoenix put it, what goes up can’t stay up indefinitely because what’s under it, supporting it, anyway?
Realizing his star has faded, the author bums around the city and finds nourishment in the faxes sent to him by his father, which begin “Dear Disappointment.” This, of course, is often quite funny. Still, at a later visit, the following transpires:
“Why don’t you drink a pint of lye and get it over with?” my father said. “Why don’t you have yourself a nice little lye-and-hantavirus smoothie? That’ll fix you up good, you piece of shit.”
My father flung himself across the table, flapped his hand in my face. It’s true he never hit me. A father need not hit. His coughs, his smirks, are blows. Even a father’s embrace confers a kind of violence. Or so I once pronounced on public radio.
Though clearly aiming for a laugh with the final line in this passage, Lipsyte’s own words argue a truth behind the contrasting ideas of love and violence within family. For even the few healthy relationships within The Fun Parts contain pointed edges. “Deniers,” concerning a recently clean woman, a man looking to escape the prejudices of this past, and her Holocaust-survivor father, presents a man who loves his daughter, yet rarely speaks to her from his nursing home bed. He’s lost in his memories of WWII, his own dementia, and in the middle of a conversation, asks her, “How’s the whoring? You make enough money for the drugs? You let the scvartzers stick it in you?” Though she replies with a clever retort, she looks up at her father’s attendant for “some flicker of solidarity.” A similar reaction occurs in “The Republic of Empathy,” where young Danny, a boy convinced he’s “the narrator of a mediocre young adult novel from the eighties,” waxes poetic during a drive with his father:
I generally want to hand it to him, and then, while he’s absorbed in admiring whatever I’ve handed to him, kick away at his balls. That’s my basic strategy.
Despite the fact that the surface relationships between these characters appear stronger than those in the collection’s other stories, they are still quite fragile. Verbal and physical violence, humorous or not, simmer under a thin façade. Such emotion, like the individuals who possess them, quivers on the fine line that divides success from failure.
This is not to say that The Fun Parts loiters in misery. If anything, the collection finds some of its finest moments laughing at despair. And much of this success comes from Lipsyte’s terrific use of language. A student of Gordon Lish, the author borrows liberally from his mentor’s literary toolbox, frequently employing Lish’s idea of consecution to his writing. As defined by Jason Lucarelli in his essay “The Consecution of Gordon Lish,” consecution is, “about continually coaxing action, conflict, and interest out of prior sentences by bringing out what is implied or suggested in what has already been written.” This technique includes the use of image patterning, alliteration, repetition, and parallel construction, among others, to construct strong, momentum-building narratives.
As an example, “The Climber Room” contains two repeated images: Jesus Christ and penetration. One, in a way, implies the other, and yet they transpire separately within the narrative. The first image echoing Christ occurs when Tovah is at a market checkout counter. “You didn’t die for my sins, lady,” the register employee tells her. “So don’t go building a cross for yourself.” Later, Tovah thinks about a past moment of comfort and equates it to “the way Jesus must have worked.” When she then considers having a child of her own, Jesus returns with the quip: “You couldn’t be pregnant if you hadn’t been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah.” And, finally, Jesus Christ makes an appearance in a panicked curse, when Randy exclaims, “Jesus fucking Christ.”
Similarly, the image and concept of penetration begins its patterning when Tovah suffers from a stomachache so painful, it is as if “a miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil.” In the next paragraph, her fountain pen is said to have “impaled” a pillow. This pattern continues throughout the story, from reference made to a heroin addiction, to “sharp” dollar bills and gold-digging implements “edged enough to carve.” And the ultimate payoff is the story’s final image: that of Randy standing in front of Tovah with his penis exposed, ready for sex, the ultimate penetration.
The two repeated images in “The Climber Room” create a kind of thematic consecution, providing, as defined in Lucarelli’s essay, “a deeper level of coherence and unity to a story with passages that offer insight into story meaning.”
Lipsyte also employs alliteration to add a bouncy depth to his narratives. The pregnant couple in “The Wisdom of the Doulas” is described as the type lost without “their antique Ataris and sarcastic sneakers.” Within the first two pages of “The Climber Room,” parents are called “crypto-creepy,” and Dezzy is complimented on her “sparkly shoes.” Talk of Dezzy’s sparkle shoes then leads to the memory of a home, which is called “dizzying.” Dezzy, sparkly, dizzy. Likewise, Lipsyte finds strong use for parallel construction in these stories. The boy at the beginning of “Snacks,” in considering the perks of losing weight, mentions the possibility of receiving “blow jobs,” “hand jobs,” and “all the jobs” from his sister’s friends. And when Tovah in “The Climber Room” meets an old flame for dinner, the third person narration notes: “The shock about Sean was his shock of white hair.” This playfulness creates action at the base level of sentence, and in turn strengthens the overall work.
In the end, though, what makes The Fun Parts such a joy to read is Lipsyte’s commitment to creating environments and situations that are often left in the shadows of contemporary American literature. In a 2010 interview with Paris Review, the author said, “I write what I want. I try to write what I’d like to read. I think about not wasting a reader’s time, my own included.” This personal enjoyment is evident in his stories, where the losers find a voice, even if they continue to stumble toward obscurity.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.