The fun parts of Lipsyte’s second collection of short fiction are numerous but mostly brief — a word from left field, a spot-welded spot-on phrase, a sentence composed in colloquial Babel, a stretch of near-sequitur dialogue, a paragraph of antic harangue, a momentary revelation hurled from one of Lipsyte’s Loners and Losers, an unaffiliated band of dopers, dimwits, and deadbeats. Then, like the Red Sea of old, the fun parts and we have to face “fish shit and dead fish,” sea wrack and human ruin.
In Lipsyte’s first novel, The Subject Steve, the narrator is eulogizing his best friend when he realizes the speech is “more like a pitch, a campaign presentation. Sell the suits on how you mean to sell the legacy. Keep it punchy.” If you chain-read the thirteen stories in The Fun Parts, you may feel you’ve gone thirteen rounds with Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the former middleweight boxing champion who appears in “The Worm in Philly.” Hemingway and Mailer fancied themselves pugilists outside their work. Inside the covers, Lipsyte pummels away at readers’ happy faces with foiled people and failed plots, giving new meaning to “punchy prose,” writing that combines Punch and Judy comedy with hooks and haymakers.
In “The Dungeon Master,” about a sadistic controller of a violent role-playing game and his four adolescent “slaves,” Lipsyte implies that readers willing to be fun-loving masochists have things to gain from his work — enlarged sympathies for the wrecked, simulated preparation for readers’ own ruins. Explaining his cruelty to the story’s fourteen-year-old narrator after breaking his wrist, the Master defends harsh games (and stories): “Take, for example, suicides. The game doesn’t create suicides. If anything, it postpones them. I mean, the world gives you many reasons to snuff it.” Although I agree with the Master and admire Lipsyte’s amuse-and-abuse method, The Fun Parts is probably best experienced — both its martial art and goofball pessimism — one round a day.
Trained by another master sometimes accused of sadism, the demiurge editor Gordon Lish, Lipsyte began as a writer of short fictions in Venus Drive. They were not so much stories as sketches and bits where he could practice his fun with sentences. Then he switched to novels — The Subject Steve, Home Land, The Ask — which retained some of the early fictions’ linguistic sport while becoming progressively (or retrogressively) traditional in their narration and realistic in their plots, possibly because the stylistic intensity that Lipsyte demands of himself is very difficult to sustain over 200 or 300 pages. The Ask rightly received considerable praise when it was published three years ago, but The Fun Parts suggests that shorter forms — now more storyfied (four were published in The New Yorker) — give Lipsyte the best medium to be Lipsyte, the fierce proprietor of a flatbed funhouse that shuttles back and forth between his North Jersey roots and New York City.
“Fun parts,” as Lipsyte points out in his final story, can also mean private parts, as well as the brain’s receptors for the joys of sex, drugs, and other stimulants. Like Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer, Lipsyte “hitches his dynamo to the tenderest parts.” A failed poet in “The Climber Room” wants her womb filled, even if that means being climbed by the rich employer who fondles himself in front of her. In “Wisdom of the Doulas” a male mother’s helper forces his client to breast-feed despite her pain: he shouts, “Get some” to the newborn and then sucks on the mother’s breast himself. Although the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Mandy Gottllieb, a marginally employed recovering crackhead, may need to take up with a former neo-Nazi in “Deniers.” The D in the DNA of Lipsyte’s characters stands for “desperate.” They’re not subtle folks, but they make great narrators for a writer committed to fervid prose.
When desires are frustrated or sensitivities are abraded, fisticuffs often ensue. A disgruntled heroin dealer in “The Worm in Philly” gives a customer a beat-down. An overweight boy in “Snacks” assaults an obese boy for being his gross double. About half the stories end in violence — other punch-outs, a shooting, an old man run over by a lawnmower, a helicopter crash. This tendency of Lipsyte to go for the KO at the bell is less an interesting way to rearrange readers’ sensibilities than a convenient and old-fashioned technique to stop a story.
Recurrent tender parts for Lipsyte, in this collection and elsewhere, are his father, Robert Lipsyte, a widely known sportswriter who covered a lot of boxing and an author of young adult fiction, and Sam’s deceased mother, whom he cared for in her terminal illness. Although Sam is respectful of his father in interviews and nonfiction, paternal relations take some hits in his fiction. A character in “The Republic of Empathy” feels “like the narrator of a mediocre young adult novel” and would like to “kick away” at his father’s balls. The narrator of “The Worm in Philly” wants to punch his sportswriter father for leaving his mother when she was ill. And the “Progenitor” of the memoirist in “Nate’s Pain Is Now” addresses his son as “Dear Disappointment” and scolds him for being a “junkie freak moan[ing] about his generation,” with that last word having a double meaning.
The Progenitor may have a point because his son is having doubts about his subjects and readers:
Nobody wanted my woe. Nobody craved my disease. The smack, the crack, the punch-outs and lockdowns, all those gun-to-my-temple whimpers about my dead mother and scabby cat — nobody cared anymore. The world had worthier victims. Slavers pimped out war orphans in hovels hung with rat-chewed velveteen. Babies starved on the desert floor.
Once, my gigs at the big-box bookshops teemed with the angry and ex-decadent, the loading-bay anarchists and hackers on parole, the meth mules, psych majors.
Goth girls, coke ghosted, rehabbed at twelve and stripping sober, begged for my sagas of degradation, epiphany…in a world gone berserk with misery, plague, affinity marketing.
This passage parodies Lipsyte land and mocks self-parody with incongruous phrases such as “scabby cat” paired with “dead mother,” “big-box bookshops,” and “affinity marketing,” but the paragraphs also hint at reasons for a slight shift in the last third of The Fun Parts, the kind of shift we see in Lipsyte’s novels from tales of angry single men to the narrative of a struggling family man in The Ask. Gary, the drug dealer who appears in two earlier books, pops up only once in this collection. And the stories toward the end of The Fun Parts are gentler or more consistently humorous in their approach to characters and readers than the first stories.
The longest and best — maybe best because longest, giving Lipsyte space to represent “the dominion of the real, an almost magical zone of unselfed sensation” — is “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” a reworking of an event in Eugene Onegin. The unnamed narrator’s college friend, Davis, says he is terminally ill, to coax the narrator into a visit where Davis can threaten to finish a duel interrupted in college. Twenty years ago Davis said he’d wait to shoot the narrator until he “lost his bunnylike nihilist strut. When he’s discovered love. When he’s struck a truce with feeling. When his every thought and action isn’t guided by childish terrors.” The narrator’s present life is not nearly as rich as Davis imagines, so ironies abound; but what Davis wants the narrator to lose — call it emotional maturity — is present in several of the collection’s late stories.
“Ode to Oldcorn” looks back with wry sensitivity at the narrator’s (and Lipsyte’s) high school career as a shot-putter. In “Peasley,” Lipsyte leaves his usual discomfort zone of urban America to invent the old age of “The Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks in England” before World War I. “Nate’s Pain Is Now” satirizes commercial confessions but also indicates that Lipsyte, now in his mid-forties, knows his tough-guy fictions can be faulted for youthful mannerism. Like “Nate’s Pain,” the finale of The Fun Parts, “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” mocks a writer, Gunderson, who sacrifices relations with a wife and child to save the world from a prophecy revealed to him by a Mexican drug shaman, a mission encouraged by an elf voice named Baltran that the writer hears in his head.
Gunderson suspects he’s a fool, and Lipsyte knows Gunderson is crazy, and yet the author gives Gunderson in his dying thoughts the story’s penultimate words and its title, which initially referred to a hot dog: “Beyond the seal of the multiverse was a wet, blazing mouth. It slavered. It meant to munch. It had journeyed through many forevers to reach what it existed to devour: the real-ass jumbo,” another name for the soul or, maybe, the world. Gunderson’s estranged wife, one of the few women in the collection, has the most emotionally mature lines in the story, and Lipsyte writes funny lines every page, every paragraph; but with Gunderson’s final words Lipsyte also reminds readers that he still packs a punch.
A recent essay in The New York Times claimed that the short story could be making a comeback in our digital age of twittered attention span, that the form is not just the juice that runs all the MFA factories in the land, that even the short story collection, long a sinkhole for publishers, might be feasible in light of George Saunders’s success with Tenth of December — to which The Fun Parts bears some resemblance — though Saunders’s prose seems assembled from the oral clutter of language-challenged characters while Lipsyte’s writing is handmade and sweated one sentence after another. If this rosy short-story future does come to pass, it could be a fun time for Lipsyte the artful jabber — get in, throw some lightning combinations, get out. But writing story after story after story requires rich reserves of invention: maybe a similar turbo style but new characters, new situations, new tonalities every twenty damned pages. Perhaps Lipsyte can become America’s very own Alice Munro, but a couple of the stories in The Fun Parts read like exercises, and several others rely on characters or conclusions that come to seem formulaic. That self-similarity is another reason — along with the danger of getting punch-drunk — why Lipsyte is the most fun when he’s read in parts rather than in a whole collection.