“I did not pan out,” admits Lewis Miner, a decade and a half after anyone thought he might. Lewis is novelist Sam Lipsyte’s nom de shame, and his new book Home Land is Lewis’s story told in the form of missives offered to the Eastern Valley High alumni newsletter reminding the student body of ol’ Teabag—an unshakable nickname assumed after a hazing incident involving the ballsac of second-string high school celeb Philly Douglas—and chronicling his dalliances with disappointment.
Caught napping in the middle of a Pigpen-like cloud of unmet potential, Lewis proves the constant object of head-shaking and hand-wringing from what passes for his friends and loved ones: Gary (his best friend, living off a lawsuit inheritance he’s considering giving back), Gwendolyn (his ex-girlfriend, who abandoned Lewis for a life on the coattails of her movie-star brother), his dead mother (inevitably sainted, thus might not count). In fact, the only one who doesn’t view Lewis’s lot in life as massively unfulfilled is Lewis himself; he’s exactly who he thinks he should be, having never expected to be anybody. Teabag is Lipsyte’s riff on Camus’s Meursault, his existential crisis not in killing an Arab but in staying home and masturbating to Internet pictures of girls in leg warmers.
Home Land is not strange enough to be The Stranger, though, and it’s far too funny. Running between psychological cruelty (“The problem with women today is that so many of them have worked out their daddy shit. Guys like me have no shot”) and arch wordplay that might appeal to the Frasier set (“Objects too close may be a mirror”), the novel is relentless in its persecution of facade, constantly pointing out not only that the emperor’s not wearing any clothes, but that he’s really let himself go. Or there’s this, Lipsyte’s bravest moment in a book full of them: “Each of us walks to the beat of a different drummer. It’s just that some of these drummers suck.” The author distills his entire novel into a 19-word soundbite and slips it in less than a third of the way through. It’s almost as though he’s daring us to go on when there might not be any point. Of course, continuing on when there might not be any point kinda is the point.
The laugh lines come fast and furious as Lewis’s story builds to its climax, but Lipsyte’s confidence in his narrative and trust in his readers suggest the tone’s true purpose as a means rather than an end. “Tell it to the tots,” Lewis says early on. “They’re brighter and braver than you may care to believe.” And we’re caught up in the archness seeing Lewis angle his crosshairs at the kids, normally unimpeachable in their innocence. But as these asides accumulate, it becomes clear that this is not Lewis at his most biting, as he doubtless hopes to appear, but rather at his most open. He’s trying to sell himself on his cynicism as much as he’s trying to sell us. He says that “nostalgia is fear smeared with Vaseline,” but that’s a phrase too finely turned to be accepted as legitimate sentiment. Once we see the tears for the clown, it becomes hard not to see Lewis as one of those laughing-so-that-I-might-not-cry types: Teabag, revealed.
Lipsyte denies the instinct to turn this realization of the way things are into a recommendation as to the way they ought to be. Lewis doesn’t really learn from his mistakes, nor would he even categorize them as such. So why should we? The American dream is revealed as self-denying prophecy, disallowed by the assumption that it was inevitable.
“When are we going to stop talking like this?” Lewis asks. “You mean like everything’s pretend?” responds Gary (a/k/a Dirtfuck, the retractor, Captain Thorazine). He continues: “Like we can’t face the truth of our lives as we live them? Today’s the day.” That’s a joke Lipsyte plays on his characters (the one time he allows himself to see them as we might); he’s too canny to think that today might really be the day, too depressed to let us believe that it might be. But he’s just optimistic enough to think that it might be tomorrow.