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TBTS Reviews: The Ask

September 8, 2010

When I was nineteen, an older student at my college looked me in the eye and said he didn’t foresee any great leaders coming from my generation.  “You just don’t have what it takes,” he said.  “The generation before you, and maybe the generation after you, but yours is kind of a lost generation.  I feel bad for you.”  It was 1992, and the meme of the day was that we Gen-Xers were slackers, doomed to be locked in our own heads for life.  Now I’m knocking on the door of forty, and I wonder if it hasn’t come true.  If it has, and signs seem to be pointing that way, Sam Lipsyte might well be the voice of this lost generation.

Milo Burke is a miserable dude.  Forty-odd years old and once, in his mind, the savior of the dying art of painting, he now works as a fundraiser at a mediocre university in New York (which he refers to as The Mediocre University of New York), Milo is fantastically bad at his job, and one day Milo tells the daughter of a major donor exactly what he thinks of her and is duly fired.  From there, Milo’s downward spiral begins, but then an old friend, Purdy Stuart, now a tech millionaire who has succeeded in life as fantastically as Milo has failed, approaches the university dangling a major donation – but demands that Milo be the one to pursue it, and so, temporarily and not entirely to his liking, Milo is back on the job.

Sam Lipsyte is an unapologetically funny writer who lets jaw-dropping sentences fly like bullets in an action movie.  He takes aim at office life, middle-class ennui, useless rich people and their even more useless offspring, patriotism, sex, love, marriage, college, and the state of the republic, and he scores hits more often than not, in an acidic, profane style that should rightly put him near the top of the admittedly short list of great literary humorists of today.

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp.  Our republic’s whoremaster days were through.  Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging-market flesh?  Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.

“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

Lipsyte’s characters are remarkably full, not outsized caricatures but whole people, all of them caught up in their own sordid states of being.  From Purdy’s illegitimate and secret son Don, a poisonously angry double amputee who lost his legs to an IED in Iraq, to Milo’s amiable but shamelessly adulterous wife Maura to Purdy’s sex-addict tough-guy factotum Michael Florida, all of them know how they got where they are and all are helpless to change their ways.  All throughout, Lipsyte’s high-energy dialogue and venomous filigreed prose animates them in a way that compels you toward the inevitable conclusion.

The Ask is not an uplifting book, but there is a kind of sick pleasure in reading it.  It is the kind of book that makes you laugh uproariously while reading it and want to curl up and cry when you think about it later.  He allows only the slightest hope for Milo’s redemption, but you know all along he’s incapable of doing it himself.  Milo seethes with self-loathing, and by his account has earned every bit of it.  Purdy’s reappearance takes Milo on a journey through his past, piling failure on top of failure until we understand in full Milo’s wobbly, flaccid present self.  When Milo finally reaches his destination, we get this note-perfect exchange between Milo and his co-worker, the embarrassingly named Vargina:

“No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?”

“I would never read a book like that, Milo.  I can’t think of anyone who would.  There’s no reason for it.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, here come some friends.  Look.  Here they come.  Look at them.  Like angels.”

They looked more like muscular men in blue shirts.  They laid a large kit next to my head, dug through it.

“What happened?”

“Well,” I heard Horace say, “He figured out the world wasn’t all about him and he fainted.”

But for a member of his lost generation it is easy to identify with Milo, distressingly so.  Have we been untested, untried?   Or are we being tested, and are we failing?  Have we reached the limits of living inside our own heads, are we finding the space too cramped and claustrophobic?  Are we, in so many words, figuring out the world isn’t all about us, and are we even now tipping over, wilting from the heat of our own spontaneously combusting solipsism?

Don’t ask me, man.  I’ve got some YouTube to watch, maybe check some blogs.

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One Comment
  1. Christopher Porter permalink
    September 8, 2010 2:22 pm

    Nice review, Mark! I’ve been wanting to read this since I first saw it out. Glad to hear that it lives up to expectations.

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