The Fun Partsby Sam Lipsyte
A hilarious collection of stories from the writer The New York Times called "the novelist of his generation"
Returning to the form in which he began, Sam Lipsyte, author of the New York Times bestseller The Ask, offers up The Fun Parts, a book of bold, hilarious, and deeply felt fiction. A boy eats his way to self-discovery/i>/i>/i>/p>/b>/i>… See more details below
A hilarious collection of stories from the writer The New York Times called "the novelist of his generation"
Returning to the form in which he began, Sam Lipsyte, author of the New York Times bestseller The Ask, offers up The Fun Parts, a book of bold, hilarious, and deeply felt fiction. A boy eats his way to self-discovery while another must battle the reality-brandishing monster preying on his fantasy realm. Meanwhile, an aerobics instructor, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, makes the most shocking leap imaginable to save her soul. These are just a few of the stories, some first published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Playboy, that unfold in Lipsyte's richly imagined world.
Other tales feature a grizzled and possibly deranged male birth doula, a doomsday hustler about to face the multi-universal truth of "the real-ass jumbo," and a tawdry glimpse of the northern New Jersey high school shot-putting circuit, circa 1986. Combining both the tragicomic dazzle of his beloved novels and the compressed vitality of his classic debut collection, The Fun Parts is Lipsyte at his best—an exploration of new voices and vistas from a writer Time magazine has said "everyone should read."
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.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.
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.
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.
Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, two critical books, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated periodicals. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair
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Read an Excerpt
The Fun Parts
By Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2013 Sam Lipsyte
All rights reserved.
the CLIMBER ROOM
The sign in the Sweet Apple kitchen declared it a nut-free zone, and every September somebody, almost always a dad, cracked the usual stupid joke. The gag, Laura, the school director, told Tovah, would either mock the school's concern for potentially lethal legumes or else suggest that despite the sign's assurance, not everyone at Sweet Apple could boast of sanity.
Today, as Tovah leaned into the fridge to adjust the lunch bag heap, a skinny gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him "Papa" as he nudged her toward the cubbies, winked at Tovah, pointed to the sign.
Here it came, the annual benediction.
"Nut free!" Papa said. "Oh, no! Guess I'd better scram!"
He looked at Tovah as though expecting some response, but what? Tolerant smile? Snappy retort? Hand job? These older fathers with their second, "doing-it-right-this-time" families were the worst. This version stuck out a large, knuckly hand that seemed locked in a contest for supremacy with his heavy platinum watch.
"Randy Goat," the man said.
Tovah figured she had misheard.
"Tovah Gold," she said, and shook his hand, or, rather, a few of his supple fingers.
"And this is Dezzy."
"Dezzy!" Tovah said, recognized the girl now. She sank to a knee, which was not only the proper way to address children but a nifty evasive maneuver vis-à-vis their crypto-creepy progenitors. "Hi, Dezzy. Do you remember me? I tagged along with Laura on the home visit a few weeks ago. You showed me your new sparkly shoes."
"Sparkle shoes," said Dezzy.
"Sparkle, of course."
"Right," Randy said. "I was out of town when you guys popped by."
The place had been enormous, dizzying, a living (well, not quite living) embodiment (not embodiment, precisely) of the aspirational sconce porn that Tovah sometimes indulged in online or at magazine racks.
"We met your wife," Tovah said. "She was so nice."
Tovah still blanked on the family name. She was stuck with Goat.
"I remember with my older children," the man said. "You guys like to do a little recon. Find out if we keep our kids in filth while we boost skag all day. But I guess we passed. We good, God-fearin' folks, I swears."
Tovah stared at him, unsure of Laura's preferred reply to such a performance. She was new to the pre-K world, and just part-time, temporary. Tovah had been an administrative coordinator at an East Side prep school for years, until the school brought back the retired headmaster to replace her. The crash had made crumb snatchers of the toniest. The headmaster had run the school. Now he ran the office, and Tovah, at home, ran a lot of hot water for non-revitalizing soaks. The offer from Sweet Apple, managed through a distant family friend, had saved her.
"Sorry to shock you," Randy Goat said now. "Just funnin'."
"You didn't shock me," said Tovah, though the word "skag," the old-timey TV creak of it, intrigued her.
"A tightass," Randy Goat said. "Good. It means you'll be careful with my kid."
Now other children tore past, monogrammed backpacks jouncing. Laura jogged up in an outfit she'd recently described as "business yoga casual."
"Mr. Gautier," she said. "Wonderful."
"You know to call me Randy, Laura. You look radiant. You must have bloomed with love this summer."
Laura blushed. "Not quite."
"Just a fling? Sounds fun."
Tovah pictured another universe where, without hesitation, she could slap Randy Gautier's smug, maybe once sensual old-man mouth. Laura was annoying, but she didn't deserve this spinster baiting, especially from a geezer. Tovah wasn't that far from cat ladyhood herself, though she believed — had staked her life on the belief — that everything always changed at the last minute. The right man, or even woman (what did it matter, really?), would just appear and, for goddamn certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn't matter, but spine on the inside would be nice. Now an unknown force, perhaps the man's shimmering wrist piece, whipped her back through conjectured space-time, far from the cool, lavender room where she cradled her perfect newborn. She stood with her hand on Desdemona Gautier's silky skull while the girl's father bent down to address her.
"It's going to be a great day, sweetie. The first of many great days. Just do whatever Laura and Tovah tell you."
The Goat Man winked at Tovah again.
Tovah treated him to the smile she once bestowed upon the creative writing professor who told her that some people were meant to write poetry and others, like Tovah, to treasure it.
She'd proved that incontinent toad wrong, for a few years, anyway.
* * *
Tovah's D'Agostino's card wouldn't beep her the rebate. She feigned a pressing appointment, offered to pay full price for her crackers and sodium-free vegetable broth. The woman at the register looked at Tovah as though she'd chucked a diamond brooch into the Hudson.
"I can just swipe for you," she said, slid an extra card from beneath the cash drawer.
"Save it for somebody worthy," Tovah said.
"Hey," the woman said. "We need the wood."
"You didn't die for my sins, lady. So don't go building a cross for yourself. We need the wood."
Tovah gave a feral grin. By midnight tonight, fueled by soup and crackers, she would have her first verse in years.
"Thank you," Tovah said. "You don't even know."
"I know you need crazy bitch pills," the woman muttered, but Tovah, lost in private, triumphal noise, did not catch it.
* * *
By midnight Tovah lay on the couch with a stomachache. A miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil, or so went an intriguing image that had come to her as she puked up the crackers, the soup, and the Chinese entrées she'd ordered after the crackers ran out. She never ate like this. She kept her slim figure with a subsistence diet of iced espressos, store-cut cheese cubes, and a few dry salads a day. But she remembered that back when she really wrote poetry, she ate a lot of greasy food, with no gastric regret. The extra weight had just made her voluptuous. She'd been so young.
Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot. In her vision of herself she was not even obese, but more like a bloated carcass gaffed from a lake. There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she'd acquired in about five hours damp and rashy, rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch, whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache. It was all so awful, evil, so unlike the Tovah of recent years, of modified appetites and reduced expectations, that her corpse-body surged with something revoltingly, smearishly pleasing. She felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy. Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief. She pictured the actual gaffer leaning over the gunwale: rugged, with kind, lustful eyes under a brocaded cap. Sparkle eyes. Tovah's legal pad, upon which she'd written only the title of her poem, "Needing the Wood," slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.
Morning light woke her, but Tovah's half-closed eyes bent the rays back into a dream about a sun-stabbed land of which Tovah was philosopher-queen. She could retain her crown only by mastering a vintage pinball machine set atop an onyx plinth. The flippers stuck, and the holes were the mouths of female poets. A silver ball plopped into the maw of Dickinson. A voice in the head of her dreamself told Tovah not to "skin lip."
She woke again, rose from the couch, saw the stained cartons of kung pao chicken, sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and mystery moo shoo. She retched. She took a shower and made gunpowder tea and sat on the toilet and sighed. She had a date tonight.
It would be odd to see Sean again. Her best friend in college, Callie, had a brother, and everyone had agreed that this lean black-haired wonder was bound for an extraordinary life. Sean might direct a morally resonant movie, or design a marvelous bridge, or climb a heretofore unscalable mountain both to prove his prowess and deliver medicine to a snowed-in camp on the far slope. He had a keen mind, a daredevil physicality, a conscience. You could picture him leading large, semi-whimsical social movements.
At his sister's party during one Christmas break years before, Sean's graciousness, even more than his charisma, had undone Tovah. Sean made the rounds, checked on everybody's drinks, lavished his attentions on the shy. When he walked up and handed Tovah a daiquiri and they spoke for a few moments about turtles, or tortoises of great size and longevity, Tovah felt something magical and formfitting slip over her: a tunic of light. This was the way Jesus must have worked, some petty wonder talk while revelation sunk its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul. Soon Sean drifted away, perhaps to knock up other guests.
Tovah never saw him again and thought about him constantly. She waited for word of his victories. Callie nourished her with stories about new jobs and cities, so that Sean became a character in some corny but secretly enthralling serial adventure. He worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, wrote experimental screenplays in Gobi desert yurts, enrolled in architecture school, film school, medical school (but only for research, with no intention of doctoring). He had undertaken a scientifically significant balloon journey. But after a while the stories got hazy. Callie said something about a junk habit.
Tovah wondered if Sean was the type who peaked just before setting off into the world, the boy the gang bets on before they understand life. A sad notion, but she still wanted to see him. He'd reached out to her through several friends (not Callie, though, who'd broken with Tovah over a misunderstanding about the location of a brunch spot). Sean's contact was not random, but certainly sudden.
His interest surprised her. People had eased away from Tovah. She had become a tad too prickly, or self-sufficient. Maybe her empathy seemed strained. Unfair, this last, as she really felt for others, and with them, but it never quite came across. That's what creative writing was for. She knew better, from so many workshops, than to suggest that poetry existed to express one's feelings, though infuriatingly, hers did.
A baby, however, especially a baby bred to be lean and coal haired and jade eyed and slant smiled, like Sean, could learn to express Tovah's feelings, too, without the torture of words.
* * *
Out on Broadway, Tovah stepped into a hat boutique, the kind of sparse, dusty affair you assume would be a depression's first prey, but here it stood. Tovah hated hats, or could never conceive of a hat that would suit her, except maybe a floppy straw thing she could wear to the beach with sunglasses and coquettishly unflattering sandals. She'd lug along books in a canvas bag, but when would she get to the beach? She lived on an island, sure, but that didn't mean she numbered among those permitted to go to the beach.
"Can I help you?" said the salesgirl.
She seemed, but didn't look, fifteen.
"Who comes in here?" Tovah asked.
"People looking for hats."
"That is twisted."
Tovah felt funny. Maybe she hadn't really bounced back from last night's death feast.
Maybe what she'd been on the couch was pregnant, though only ignorance could make it true. You could reckon the dates, track the cycles, but then certain facts press down. You couldn't be pregnant if you hadn't been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah. She'd never even considered herself the maternal type. She didn't believe there was such a temperament, unless one assembled it in the culture factory along with images of women as radiant white creatures traipsing through summer fields with their tanned, though still white, spawn.
Those were the old lies. The newer ones claimed that all committed mothers could also manage begemmed careers, that only the weak or untalented had to choose. But even the mothers at Sweet Apple, not to mention her former school, could not disguise their struggle. Instead they sought catharsis in their comic monologues about the slog, or the sick joke of being marked as both mediocre mothers and lousy colleagues.
Some mothers at Sweet Apple had gleaned an even greater shift: the shame in procreation. People glared at families, at mothers. Nobody got up for pregnant women on the subway anymore. The planet couldn't sustain more mouths. So stand, greedy lady.
Tovah had picked her side years before. No peace-shredding hominid would find shelter in her womb. She loved to play with the pre-K kids, but live with one? Then something embarrassing and maybe purely chemical occurred. She wanted a baby. That was all. She still believed everything she believed, cultivated privacy and solitude, and, despite her attachment to the Sweet Apple tykes, believed childlessness the noble course (yes, your kid might cure cancer, but probably he'd grow up to play video games or, if the world followed its current path, huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater and recalling the magnificence of video games). But she wanted a baby. That's what her body was for, in the cruel scheme of things, and she craved the bleakness of biology. It didn't matter if the baby was hers, except it absolutely did. She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent. In this way life would be joyful instead of nearly unlivable. The part of her that she'd always trusted knew this was crazy, but that part had also, one had to admit, led her to this grim limbo.
Tovah started across the street for a cleansing smoothie. Somebody shouted her name. Mr. Gautier strode toward her. He had a sharp-boned swagger and wore a hat, a baseball cap, stitched with the words GLYPH SYSTEMS.
"Mr. Gautier," she called.
"Hello," Tovah said.
Mr. Gautier put a hand on Tovah's shoulder, took a few hard breaths. He dipped his head and spat something pebble sized onto the pavement. Tovah noticed the tiny hearing aid that lurked behind a shrub of ear hair.
"You played hooky today," he said.
"It was a day off. I'm only part-time."
"Did you hear what happened over there?"
She could picture only worst-case scenarios. Fires, floods, a collapsed ceiling in the lunch nook, a child pincered in that window sash the caretaker still hadn't fixed. Or maybe Laura had finally snapped, kicked one of what she liked to call the Future Date Rapists of America in the skull. Boys, Laura had told her, were bad for schools, bad for society.
Which wasn't to say, Laura added, that she didn't love the cuties to death.
"Dezzy was in the climber room," Mr. Gautier said, "and she fell off the ... whatever it is."
"The climber," Mr. Gautier said. "They could just say jungle gym. What's the big diff?"
"Is Dezzy okay?" Tovah asked. "Those pads on the floor are pretty soft."
"She's fine. That's not the point. She freaked out, and she cried for you. I'm convinced she feels more comfortable and confident with you around."
"That's sweet. She's so delicious. Really."
Tovah had heard other teachers use "delicious" this way. It seemed natural, but also strange, which maybe described cannibalism in general.
"A delight," she amended.
"Of course she's a delight," Mr. Gautier said. "She's my daughter. So anyway, I worked it out with Laura. You'll be changing your days so you can be there every morning Dezzy is."
"You what?" Tovah said.
"Don't worry, you don't have to do a thing. I took care of it."
"Look, I'm flattered, but I picked my days already. I think Dezzy is great, but so are the other kids, and I'm all set in my schedule."
"Do a search," Mr. Gautier said.
A low snarl threaded his voice. There was something birdlike about his face, she noticed now, specifically a big scavenger bird, maybe a turkey vulture. But a handsome turkey vulture. It was confusing.
"When you get home, open your browser and do a search on me."
She couldn't believe she'd agreed. What a bastard.
"Then you can do a search on me," Tovah said.
She hoped her snideness bore no hint of tease. She hoped she sounded young enough to make him feel old.
"I did," Mr. Gautier said. "When they aren't mired in postmodern feminist crap, your poems are really good. Couldn't find anything recent online. What happened?"
Excerpted from The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte. Copyright © 2013 Sam Lipsyte. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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