REVIEWED BY JIM RULAND
There are two kinds of readers in this country: those who know that Sam Lipsyte is the funniest writer of his generation and those who haven’t read him yet.
Lipsyte’s new novel Home Land is the epistolary tale of Lewis Miner, aka Teabag, a freelance writer of bogus FunFacts and self-appointed chronicler of the strange fates that have befallen the Catamounts of Eastern Valley High. The novel is written as a series of updates to the alumni newsletter, but in Lipsyte’s capable hands the form is flexible enough to encompass not only Teabag’s travails but those of his tough-talking caterer father, his starfucked ex-girlfriend, his best friend’s drug-dealing AA sponsor, the B&D-obsessed high school principal, a coke-happy novelist of significant renown, a former leg-warmer-wearing member of the dance squad that Teabag has never managed to bring himself to stop masturbating to, and uptight-student-body-president-turned-uptight-Doctor Stacy Ryson. This may strike newcomers to Lipsyte’s fiction as strange, perhaps excessively so, but for long-time fans, Home Land is the apotheosis of a remarkable, yet under-appreciated, career.
I first stumbled upon Lipsyte’s work in a strange little magazine called J&L Illustrated #1. It had fluorescent green covers and was filled with weird drawings. Lipsyte’s “Ode to Oldcorn” was the first story, and from the first line, I was hooked: “Oldcorn was this shotputter from the hippie days.” To anyone who was 16 years old in 1984, the phrase is pregnant with hilarity that instantly brings Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man to mind:
Miller: A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?
Reading Lipsyte, you get the feeling that back in the “long-after-the-hippie-days-were-gone days” he figured out that Repo Man was Miller’s movie, not Otto’s, the pindick who conflates assholeishness with punk. Miller gets all the best lines--“John Wayne was a fag”--and at the end of the movie pilots a Chevy Malibu into outer space. He is the sort of classic Reagan-era archetype--the outcast as unlikely hero while those better suited for the role fail--that keeps popping up in Lipsyte’s stories and novels. You’ve got gruff (read: gleefully misogynist) mentors, hilariously ineffective goons, villains that are much more dangerous than they appear to be, and hard-hearted women who are utterly indifferent to the hero’s affections--all of whom may very well be working in concert to destroy the lovable losers at the center of his story. The main difference is that in Lipsyte’s milieu, they usually succeed.
The tension in Lipsyte’s fiction comes from the relationship between the two losers at the heart of the narrative who are linked for the sole reason that no one else will have anything to do with them. In “Ode to Oldcorn” the narrator befriends Fred Powler, a “feeb” who gets hit in the head with a snowrock.
“Now Fred maybe belonged on that special bus with all those rubber handles, but who had the heart to put him on it? I didn’t have that kind of heart. I did Fred’s homework for him. I figured he could start to be retarded next year.”
This would be heartbreaking if it wasn’t so hilarious. Or maybe it’s the other way around, but it’s precisely this tension that drives the prose. Lipsyte will take your imagination to some dark places, but he’ll make you laugh, and you’ll be laughing at things you probably wouldn’t be laughing at if someone were looking over your shoulder.
“Ode to Oldcorn” isn’t in Lipsyte’s short story collection, Venus Drive, but here the paradigm continues. Take “The Admiral of the Swiss Navy,” a derogative appellation given to the kid forced to scrape and stack the dishes in a summer camp mess hall on a lake somewhere near Canada. This duty typically fell to an unlucky kid named Van Wort:
“Van Wort was fat and his name was Van Wort. With that combination, why would you pack your kid off to camp? Let him play with ladybugs in the safety of his own lawn.”
This is foreshadowing, and when Lipsyte foreshadows, someone is going to reap the whirlwind, and reap it good.
“Van Wort took a canoe out to the middle of the lake. We were doing free swim and we heard him call to us, watched from drink from a big plastic jug and just sort of bend over, roll off the bow into the lake. You’d figure drowning would be hard going to begin with, all that lung smash and lung stove and no air to dream of rivers anymore, but picture it with your guts burning off from a stolen jug of kitchen lye.”
And that isn’t even the fucked-up part of the story.
Lipsyte has a morbid streak to be sure, which probably comes from spending too much time with addicts and alcoholics. Lipsyte’s characters take to drugs the way Faulkner’s characters use alcohol: with reckless abandon and violent intent that precludes happy endings. They invariably belong to the “you know you had a good time when you wake up with the snot kicked out of you” school of partying. When things get dicey they reflexively reach for the bong or hit the streets to cop. It’s as if Lipsyte is suggesting that when you log enough hours with the lost souls of the world, you discover that just about everything we do on this planet is a form of self-annihilation.
Nowhere is this plainer than in the pages of The Subject Steve, a novel about a man diagnosed with a deadly disease with no cause, no symptoms, and no cure. (Sharp-eyed detox nurses and rehab trustees would be well advised to ban this novel from the premises.) The source of Steve’s affliction might be drugs, or sex, or religion or a combination of all three. Consider this rumination on Steve’s love interest at the Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption:
“It was organized religion that stole my baby’s legs away. Some soused bishop jumped a curbside in his El Camino. This was in her hometown in Neptune, New Jersey. [Ed. Note: On Venus Drive, perhaps?] Renee was just seventeen, window-shopping for a slutty top for school. She spent a year in bed and a few more trying to be a miracle of physical therapy, dreamed of the day she’d stagger through a cheering gauntlet of male nurse beefcake, but she never got past the cold flops on the padded floor. She took to gin, launched a newsletter called Gimp Snatch. Heinrich [the center’s founder] found her doing wheelchair donuts in the parking lot of Arman’s Adult Motel. He told her he was trolling for souls. She said she’d blow him for a ride home.”
What are the lessons that can be learned from this worldview? It amounts to nothing more and nothing less than this: You see an El Camino coming at you, get the hell out of the way. Are we supposed to admire those who got out of the way, pity those who don’t? Of course not. Leave it to a man with an advertising background to take the visual clichés and received knowledge passed down from after-school special and give them a thorough cornholing. This is why admiring Lipsyte’s characters is like admiring the bravura of a crack addict as he leaps from the window of a burning building. It’s a terrible thing. A tragedy for the families. All that. But Lipsyte understands that what we really want to know is this: “Did the asshole start the fire?”
Which brings us back to Home Land. I’m not going to tell you what’s inside its covers, or why you should read it, just that it’s his best work to date and is peopled with the same sad crew that Lipsyte’s fans have learned to love, even if we haven’t quite figured out which fuck-up we resemble most. We can only testify like drunks at an AA meeting that it’s comforting to see Van Wort’s father make an appearance. Ditto the uptight Stacy Ryson who bears a startling resemblance to Mindy Richter from the gymnastics team, “hanging off those hanging rings, her snapperhole all open and stinky- sweet,” tantalizing the boys on the shotput team, because whether we know it or not, we’ve all done time on Venus Drive.