Back when I was in graduate school, I had a writing professor who would talk about "risking sentiment." If you risked tugging at your readers' heartstrings and got away with it, the payoff was a story with emotional resonance. But if you pushed that too far, the story suddenly became hokey and false. I should admit that, more often than not, I was the workshop participant who was being lauded (or criticized, as the case may be) for "risking sentiment." But it wasn't a brave artistic choice on my part; I just didn't know when to stop piling it on.
No one could accuse Sam Lipsyte of such a lack of restraint. The stories in his new collection, "The Fun Parts," are sometimes grim, occasionally experimental, often very funny -- but rarely sentimental.
"THE FUN PARTS"
By Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($24).
In just about every story we meet characters whose lives are in downward spirals, with little chance of redemption or even just increased self-knowledge.
In the "Worm in Philly," the narrator is a drug addict who has a delusional plan to make it big writing a biography of the boxer Marvin Hagler. He is almost getting his act together by the end of the story, only to realize that a seeming contact he has made at a publishing house was only a concerned family member of a fellow junkie, trying to set up an intervention.
In "Snacks," an overweight boy lives with the implied scorn of everyone around him ("I was definitely my fault," he says), a situation that's made worse when an even more overweight boy joins his class and gains everyone's sympathy.
A story like "Snacks" reads like a funny but cruel character sketch, kind of like a Woody Allen prose piece combined with the crude spirit of a Judd Apatow movie. More successful, I think, are the stories where Mr. Lipsyte gives himself a bit more room for character development.
One of the collection's strongest stories is the opener, "The Climber Room," where we meet Tovah, a 36-year-old failed poet who is working part time in a day care center and otherwise kind of drifting.
When Dezzy, one of the children at the center becomes attached to her, and Dezzy's father, Randy Gautier, turns out to be a wealthy older man who funds a glossy poetry journal, Tovah engages in a cautious fantasy about marrying Randy and enjoying financial and artistic success.
Later, as she goes to his house to baby sit Dezzy, she realizes her self-deception. When he comes back, she begins a serious monologue about the situation facing women in America ("Our choices are no choice," she says). But when she turns to Randy, she sees that his fly is open and he is fondling himself.
That final moment in "The Climber Room" hits us like a slap in the face, which is not an uncommon sensation while reading Sam Lipsyte. Sometimes, just when we get to the point in the story where a more conventional writer might slip in the epiphany, he goes for the grossly comic (and unquestionably unsentimental) gesture.
Depending on taste, these moments can seem either courageous or cruel. But one thing that leavens them is that these stories are often also very funny.
In "The Wisdom of the Doulas," Mitch is a not-very-skilled male birthing assistant who gets employment through a scarcity of available women doulas and a forged letter of recommendation. It sounds like the premise of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch (and I could see Will Ferrell in this role), but I found myself laughing at the story more than I have at the show in quite some time.
Mitch's strategy for coaching the mother to breastfeed is to shout "Get some!" at the baby. "It's like a beer keg he can't quite tap," he says, as the baby struggles to latch on, and then he comforts the mother by stroking "her damp hair with the cool, curved edge of the remote control."
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Anyone who has read Mr. Lipsyte's previous work will likely expect this kind of tart humor going into "The Fun Parts," and they won't be disappointed. But there are a couple times in this collection where he seems to edge just the tiniest bit closer to sentimentality than he ever has before.
In "Deniers," Mandy is a recovering addict who lost her mother at a young age and whose now elderly father is a Holocaust survivor. At the end of the story, Mandy finds a facsimile of hope in the odd relationship she is developing with Cal, an ex-neo-Nazi who is struggling to overcome his ideology just as Mandy is struggling to overcome her addiction. This story ends with some of Lipsyte's least satirical writing of the collection, as Mandy falls asleep thinking about how she will help Cal get his panzer tank tattoo removed before she gently breaks it off with him and begins "her project of helping everybody she could help."
My favorite story -- and one of my favorite short stories of the past few years -- is "The Dungeon Master," narrated by a normal, "middle-track" kid who plays Dungeons & Dragons with a group of his peers who are all, one way or another, damaged by loss (especially the Dungeon Master). The Dungeon Master guides them through a game full of death and indignity, where characters die in a knife fight over a stolen loaf of bread or from "infections borne on unwashed steins," as opposed to the game played by the gifted kids at school, who fly dragons and fight frost giants.
The way the damaged kids seem attached to the "indignities" of their own game even as they yearn for "the classy monsters" they never get to fight gives this story an emotional richness. And Mr. Lipsyte's satire seems gentler here, so that when the Dungeon Master crosses the line by bringing the dead sister of one of the players into the game, it hits us not just in the face but in the gut.
At the end, the narrator reconciles with the Dungeon Master, in a scene that is genuinely touching even as if forecasts grim futures for all of the characters. "No hard feelings," the Dungeon Master calls out, as he is driving away.
"It must be the dumbest thing he's ever said," the narrator thinks. "What could ever be harder than feelings?" Which I think was my professor's whole point all along.mobilehome - bookreviews
Karl Hendricks is a musician, writer and owner of Sound Cat Records in Bloomfield (email@example.com).