Social misfits smothered by cynicism


A wordsmith uses biting prose to bring disillusioned characters to life.

San Francisco Chronicle

In an essay on writing about sex, Sam Lipsyte encourages writers to “trust in the modern gods who guide your hand: Sad and Funny.” This advice the author has himself taken to heart, and nowhere is this more powerfully felt than in the fictional worlds he evokes.

The stories in The Fun Parts are populated by social misfits, ranging from a disgruntled preschool teacher to a male doula, from a self-proclaimed dungeon master to a recovering alcoholic who teaches “cardio ballet” at the JCC on the Upper West Side. Disillusionment and despair run deep and infect almost every character. But Lipsyte’s biting prose, sharp and black and witty, masks the sadness so well that it’s often hard to detect.

In Expressive, the protagonist is known for his transparent facial expressions. Sometimes, he says, it works to his benefit, as when he picks up a lesbian, Roanoke, at a bar. When they are caught by Roanoke’s partner, the guy gives Roanoke a last look that he calls “Remember, the World Is Not Broken, Even If Your Crockery Is.”

Later, when he confesses to his wife, she kicks him out. All he needs to do is bid his sleeping son goodbye. Who’s going to teach the boy to make faces, he wonders as he curls up next to the boy’s crib, eyeing the moon through the window and reading its expression: “We Are All Schmucks, but I Control the Tides.” There are glimpses of tenderness here, but they seem to get lost in a thicket of mockery and cynicism.

Deniers is about a recovering alcoholic whose father, a Holocaust survivor, is fed up with hearing of people’s everyday complaints. “Trauma this, atrocity that,” he says, “people ought to keep their traps shut.” This from a man whose “gastric arias mostly stood in for conversation.” That his wife committed suicide, that his daughter is an alcoholic who keeps getting involved with the wrong kinds of guys — all of it makes sense.

In Lipsyte’s deft authorial hand, the endless flow of sinister developments works somehow, even if it means the protagonist will, after repairing the world, pedal her way “across the face of the earth” until she giggles her way “right off the edge.” It’s all so seamless, so perfectly configured in Lipsyte’s rendering. And yet, one wishes at times for some pause, the sort that would give the reader the space to really care.

Lipsyte is a brilliant wordsmith, and evidence of his skill is plentiful. At their best, his lines practically sing themselves off the page, as when a character describes himself as “naturally undetective,” then explains: “Clues clenched me up.” In another story, Lipsyte offers a curiously tantalizing description of a man’s tragic decline: “It was a slow, luxuriant slide, like a dollop of half-fried mayonnaise slinking down the lean, freckled back of a teen.”

But while the prose is flawless, the stories themselves begin to feel repetitive early on. What’s striking is the lack of a sense of struggle on the part of the writer. Words don’t come that easily to anyone. I found myself wishing that Lipsyte had let us see just a bit more of his process, of him groping for the right words to convey specific emotions — if only so that I could feel more deeply moved by the exquisite writing.

Shoshana Olidort reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.

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