Humor And Discomfort: The Fun Parts

04/10/2013 4:00 AM |

The Fun Parts
By Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte has been trading in humor and discomfort since his 2000 debut story collection, Venus Drive. Some of his preferred topics include stagnant marriages; disappointing fatherhood; dead-end jobs, friends, and relationships; lost youth; unfulfilled promise; and the rise and fall of stars in their prime. His tales possess sad hindsight, which makes them feel lived-in—resigned, but unapologetic. His latest book marks a return, after the novels Homeland and The Ask, to the short fiction of his colorfully depraved debut. (Some of the 13 stories collected here originally appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Playboy.)

Execution matters, and Lipsyte knows it. In The Fun Parts, there’s a punchline at the end of every paragraph, guaranteed. The author’s polished proficiency for turned phrases blends amiably with his biting wit to create windows into flawed, damaged souls. He never wastes a word or loses the rhythm of a sentence; his attention to cadence remains a highlight of his work.

Lipsyte specializes in characters who’re fucked from the get-go, people who got so used to getting hit they never thought to duck when they saw a punch coming. But now his focus has changed. His early stories centered on tired hook-ups and drug-fueled days drenched in music. The novels that earned him a wider audience were more middle-aged—donuts replaced heroin and coworkers replaced dealers.

Now his stories cover everything from angsty adolescents (“Treats” and “The Dungeon Master”) to writers who have made it but are scared of losing it all. “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” one of this collection’s better stories, centers on a purveyor of personal-degradation memoirs who’s usurped by his homeless, gay punk protege: “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.”

But most of Lipsyte’s characters aren’t writers. They’re hapless, self-indulgent buffoons in the vein of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces—charming despite themselves: flawed, intelligent, lonely and laughable. It’s hard not to feel kinship, despite—or because of—the way they attract problems.

John Updike, two generations before Lipsyte, wrote about the same sort of everyday men, but his heroes were more morally defensible and physically palatable than Lipsyte’s. Is it okay that our male standard-bearers are now guys who brag about picking up women who’re “kind of dykey, the way I like them”? Maybe the joke’s on us—after all, the best humor strikes close to the heart.