Sam Lipsyte’s characters are difficult to sympathize with, have pity for, or otherwise understand. This is not negative criticism. The protagonists that skulk around his debut story collection, Venus Drive, include a confused addict who deals with loss by mixing his mother’s ashes with a dose of morphine, a kid who plays Judas to a martyred fat kid at camp, and a peep-booth aficionado who molests his comatose sister. These guys are poster children for ickiness, Brechtian framing devices in and of themselves. It’s something of a testament to Lipsyte’s ability that in wry, stripped-down language, he captures brief flashes of their complex, addled humanity, and smashes a window into their hopelessness for a punchy and cinematic, if bleak, read.
Despite their abundant unsavoriness, the antiheroes of these dark tales are full of contradictions. They know right from wrong, but can’t do either correctly. Take Gary, a drug dealer who drifts in and out of a few of the stories. When he was a kid, he sawed off a chunk of his thumb and presented it to his mother on a dish. Gary’s clients see this act as evidence of his zenlike wisdom. “Who would ever bother a boy like that again? Who would tell him when to go to bed?” wonders the narrator of “I’m Slavering.” In “Beautiful Game,” Gary, after shooting cocaine, takes a group of kids on a field trip as part of his community service. “Probe to the Negative” describes the routine of a nameless market researcher and friend of Gary, who spends his workdays scorning “Lonely Larrys,” who keep survey takers on the line for companionship, only to discover unsettling parallels in his romantic life.
Most of the Lonely Larrys of VD share this tragic lack of self-awareness, or perhaps a layer of irony so armor-like that their tendency to fuck up transcends their ability to prevent themselves from fucking up. It’s as if their lives are just screenings of their misfortunes, and they sit sheepishly, helplessly pointing to the screen, whispering, “Here’s the part where I really blew it.” The anonymous, eponymous “Old Soul” of the first story is a tarnished sterling example. Here he is, after finally summoning the courage to visit that comatose sister in the hospital, where he finds one of her classmates with a book on mourning:
“How is she?” I asked.
Close to the bed, I saw what a dumb question it was. My sister used to be pretty for her type. She was still pretty, if you like girls who are skulls with a little skin on them, a few strands of cotton for hair. It was hard to believe she was going to live another minute. It had been months this way. I wanted to get in the bed, hold her, but I thought I might knock a tube out. . . .
I locked the door and sat on the chair, the book. It was something about a process, a grief process. I guess the guy had been boning up.
If there’s any sympathy to be eked out here, it’s the kind that makes you want to reach into the story and grab the dude by the neck to say, “You eeeediot!” Lipsyte does a fantastic job, in “Admiral of the Swiss Navy,” of demonstrating just how morally repugnant a supposedly neutral party can be by sheer ineffectuality. (Perhaps that’s reflected in the choice of Switzerland for the central metaphor.) One can’t help thinking that Bobby, who offers a weak alliance with his fat friend Van Wort at summer camp, does as much psychological damage as the physical torture the other boys wreak, and that the combination is what leads the unpopular camper to suicide. When Van Wort’s father appears after the tragedy and punches the narrator in the face—perhaps for declaring, “He brought it on himself” to newscasters—there’s little question that this is the proper response.
The stories bring Raymond Carver’s low-life minimalism to mind, so much so that it’s as if a puzzle piece snaps into place when you discover Carver Svengali Gordon Lish credited first on the acknowledgments page. But Lipsyte brings with him a sharp ear for contemporary vernacular, gilded with screenwriter camp:
“You look like that rock star,” she said. “Do you get high?”
“I am high,” I said.
“No, I mean high.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sometimes.”
“You’re buying,” she said.
Lipsyte, a Brown graduate, Feed writer, and son of New York Times writer Robert, may be no lowlife himself, but these vignettes have an honest, keenly observed grit. For Lipsyte, less is usually more. At times the sparseness can rob the stories of a more meaningful thrust and leave the reader frustrated. Some of the stories seem constructed of nothing but vivid, gory details that only add up to a tantalizing fragment of a compelling narrative, as if Lipsyte couldn’t bear to go on watching his characters careen toward their unhappy ends. But even in these seemingly empty stories, Lipsyte manages to evoke a response, to make you cringe. It’s fascinating to read a writer who can bring you so efficiently to such uncomfortable places.