Exit the Dragons
By Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Nothing seems to bring out the hyperbolic worst from book reviewers than a genuinely funny author, and among his peers, Sam Lipsyte inspires the most ludicrous blurbs. “Piss-yourself funny.” “Sphincter-loosening funny.” “So funny you might lose an eye.” Who reads blurbs like those and says, “That’s for me”? When did evacuative literature come into vogue? What does that last one even mean? Is there a species of reader that browses amazon.com first pages until their anus twitches or their eyeballs protrude? Do fans attend Lipsyte’s readings wearing goggles and Depends?
Or is this just a way to cope with one of the darker visions in contemporary literature? The Fun Parts, Lipsyte’s newest book, is one of the saddest story collections in recent memory, and makes obvious why he’s so funny – he needs to be. The ballast is crucial, as the world here, of addicts and 12-steppers wandering a dystopia of failure, misery, and lunatic redemption strategies, would be unbearable without it. The only relief is a sense of humor. The reader’s sense of humor, that is, since these characters are beyond even that.
Lipsyte’s favorite embodiment of the lost American is the drug abuser who emerges from the void of addiction with a Great Idea of his or her own invention, a desperate stab at purpose often hampered or fueled by the trauma of a missing or dead mother, an impossibly distanced father, and some combination of four basic traits: utter self-delusion, a thorough lack of empathy, boundless cruelty, and an obtuse, monumental vanity. Being addicts, they are remarkably selfish individuals, but made sympathetic, or at least entertaining, by their flailing in the midst of that sadly universal experience, when the will for achievement collides with the absence of ability and the opportunity for self-awareness is subsequently ignored. This collision fuels the best stories, and there’s a strange, powerful engagement in watching the pursuit of self-invention via the deranged narcissism unique to Lipsyte’s protagonists.
A typical example is found in “The Wisdom of the Doulas”. Mitch is a doula (or, as he prefers, the more masculine doulo), a sort of combination midwife, nanny, and football coach, who fell into the line of work when, fleeing from an ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend who sought out Mitch at an AA meeting, he inadvertently crashed a workshop held by doula guru Fanny Hitchens. There, a sense of mission was born, or, as he puts it, “the tricks of the miracle-of-life trade had me hooked”:
Fanny hoped I’d become a birth doulo, and I tried to oblige. Childbirth is a beautiful thing. Even all the poop and gunk that slides out of a woman during childbirth is beautiful. The plastic bag under the woman’s butt to catch the poop and gunk is beautiful, too. But I was a birth doulo bust. I couldn’t fend for women and their families in the hospitals or stand up to the godlike doctors. They all reminded me of my older sister, Tina. Tina’s not a doctor, but she’s godlike, at least to me and godlike in that cruel, capricious Greek way, too, even when we were growing up. Once, I remember, she bough me peanut brittle. Then, a few minutes later, when I asked her to buy me more peanut brittle, she said no, she’d just bought me some. What the hell was that? Mixed messages can damage a child.
Anyway, I eventually decided my talents were best served in what I like to call the postpartum arena.
Based on a recommendation from Fanny Hitchens (actually written by Mitch), he’s hired by the Gottwalds, and there commences a remarkable display of ineptitude, punctuated with dialogue showing Mitch as the classic Lipsyte archetype, a master of pristine babble aimed at prolonging the inevitable discovery of his incompetence:
Baby Gottwald wails louder, lunges for his mother’s breast, gums the cracked flesh. His lips slide on a film of milk and spit.
‘Oh, sheesh,” says Mrs. Gottwald. ‘It hurts.’
‘It’s like a beer keg he can’t quite tap,’ I say.
‘Oh, is that what it’s like?’ Mr. Gottwald says.
‘It really hurts,’ says Mrs. Gottwald. ‘It wasn’t like this with Zekey.’
‘Work the hurt,’ I say.
‘What the hell does that mean?’ Mr. Gottwald says.
‘It means whatever helps it mean something.’
‘You’re an idiot,’ says Mrs. Gottwald.
‘It’s okay,’ I say.
‘No, it’s not.’
It’s not long before Mr. Gottwald lodges complaints, the Doula Foundation revokes Mitch’s certification, and Mr. Gottwald finally decides to terminate services. Mitch, who has worked previously as “substitute gym teacher, line cook at a rib joint, mail boy at [his] late father’s accounting firm” and is “long past reinvention,” doesn’t want to leave. Mr. Gottwald, a martial arts aficionado, approaches him “with a few throwing stars jutting from his fist.” Mitch distracts him with a pointless monologue about “This thing we so blithely and with a detestable dearth of gravitas call life,” then throws a pizza box in his face. Mitch grabs a pair of nunchaku hanging on the wall, swings them to fend off Mr. Gottwald, then sucks voraciously on Mrs. Gottwald’s breast, becoming “suddenly every tiny helpless thing that ever wanted nothing but to survive another hour in this foolish, feckless universe.” Police come, a taser is produced, and before being disabled, Mitch envisions a new life:
I’ll start my own foundation, certify myself. The American League got a late start, but don’t they win their share of all-star games? No more forged letters from Fanny, either. I’ll find the families that need me, appreciate my craft. I’ll start with my building, Paula the Crackhead down the hall. There’s no question she’s knocked-up, and I’d wager she could stand for a little doulo-style tenderness.
In “The Worm in Philly”, the Great Idea comes to the unnamed narrator in a “Classic American story”:
I was out of money and people I could ask for money. Then I got what the Greeks call a eureka moment. I could write a book for children about the great middleweight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. My father had been a sportswriter before he started forgetting things, such as the fact that he had been a sportswriter or the name of his only son, so my idea did not seem so crazy…
Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler? Why not? He was one of the best of his time, my time, really, meaning the time I was a boy and the world still seemed like something that could save me from the hurt, not be it. Why for children? Children were people you could reach. You could really reach out and reach them. Plus, low word count. That meant I’d get the money faster. I was experimenting with unemployment, needed to make rent quickly. I was no longer experimenting with drugs. I knew exactly what to do with them.
Taking the few facts about Hagler that he can remember from his father’s old boxing magazines—that he “was tough and bald…perhaps the toughest, baldest fighter ever”—the narrator thinks to “build out” from there, enlisting the help of his friends, though he’d “never heard them talk about boxing, and most of them were hopeless drug addicts.” So he announces his idea at a get-together in his apartment/shooting gallery, and a divinity school student named Leo offers to put him in touch with his sister, who is an agent. Figuring the path to monumental success assured, he turns inward to find the real “point of this book”:
Maybe I could meditate, trek deep within myself. Perhaps some truths about Marvelous Marvin Hagler lay entombed there, along with memories of my mother before she got sick and my father before he left her and got married and then got married again and then started to forget everything, such as his son and his wives and the rare fury of Marvelous Marvin Hagler. For instance, here was an indelible fact: Hagler’s mother never called him Marvelous. He added that, legally, later.
Then again, maybe the point of this book wasn’t facts at all. Children didn’t need facts. Children needed books for boys about gritty people who struggled and triumphed over steep odds. Maybe my next book would tell the story of me. I had been struggling, but now my hour of triumph had arrived. Triumph was about to caress my shoulders, coo into my ear. I didn’t even know if triumph was a man or a woman, or if this was my way of battling God in my mind.
He meets with the agent and her father. He “sense[s] awkwardness between them, perhaps a dispute about who would bask longer in the reflected glory of my publication,” then is soon told that they met with him only to find out more about Leo, for whom they’re planning an intervention. The narrator subsequently informs Leo of the impending intervention and his inevitable return to rehab. Leo replies, unsurprisingly, “Shit…. Not again.” The narrator abandons (or maybe just forgets) the Great Idea, goes to score, and is beaten horribly by a dealer’s lookout.
In The Fun Parts, many are prone to the same sorts of coping tactics. Absent wisdom, they spout meaningless self-helpy jargon. Devoid of power, they overcompensate with arrogance. Lacking of humility, they become monsters of pretension. They are self-defined authorities with only the most tenuous validity, and each Great Idea is not so much a delusion of grandeur as an insistence. Then reality catches up with their ego, and they’re left to unknown, presumably grievous fates.
It’s a rich construct, but very repetitive, and the reader’s pity soon becomes strained from obtuseness fatigue and the temptations of moral superiority. But what saves the stories from becoming invitations to mockery is the aforementioned, much-ballyhooed humor. I still don’t see what people are soiling themselves over, but Lipsyte’s is one of the livelier styles to come from melding Donald Barthelme’s straight-faced absurdity with Gordon Lish’s philosophies of syntax, and much laughter is generated from sheer linguistic pleasure. At his best, the sentence-by-sentence constructions are vibrant and spontaneous. Most importantly, in the combination of crafty phraseology, crudities, and eccentric details, they are perfectly suited to tales of puerile, disordered minds struggling to engage meaningfully with an adult world.
In a Lipsyte story, here’s how one recovers from an eating binge, post-purge:
[I]n one eating spree [she]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.
Here’s how a relationship blooms:
Ypsilanti was easy to leave. I wasn’t from there. I’d just landed there. The Michigan Eviscerations had begun in Manhattan. Martha was a junior at NYU, heiress to a fuel-injection fortune. I was the cheeky barista who kept penciling my phone number on her latte’s heat sleeve. Cheeky and, I should add, quite hairy. Martha finally dialed the smudged figures on the corrugated cuff, cavorted in my belly fur. The woman never exhibited my qualms about our economic divide. After all, she’d remind me, I was a Jew. One day I’d just quit mucking around with burlap sacks of Guatemalan Sunrise and start brewing moolah.
And here’s how one prophesies the end of the world:
Gunderson hadn’t picked the date out of his favorite Alpacan hat. His zero hour was the culmination of a Mixtec prophecy. These bejeweled dudes had played their proto-basketball to the death, strolled the zocalo in the skins of foes. Probably they’d know something. Gunderson didn’t know much about them, really, but who cared? That their glyphs foretold an imminent global shift was sufficient for Ramon, the shaman mentor Gunderson had been visiting these last several winters. That’s all the convincing Gunderson needed.
Lipsyte’s chracters don’t reach emotional heights—the best they can hope to do is elude self-obliterating emotional depths—and his wordplay is most potent when showing them settled into this subdued, precarious equilibrium somewhere between lucidity and mania.
But, it’s precarious for Lipsyte as well. Despite a diligent focus on craft, his occasional straining for the outrageous goes too far and lapses into pandering. Yet another drug abuser, Craig,
had almost finished college before the pipe tripped him up. He possessed such a wry and gentle soul, except for the times he railed at [his ex] for being an evil dwarf witch who meant to stew his heart in bat broth (he’d majored in world folklore), and she’d always adored those horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like the professor he could still become. But if he had a discipline at the moment, an area of scholarly expertise, it was deep knowledge of how to steal or to lick diseased penises for the teensiest rocks.
Why “diseased”? Has Craig developed a niche? And since Craig was caught by his ex “on his knees, his face in the crotch of an obese girl with a platinum chignon,” his debasement wasn’t just restricted to male genitalia. Too literal a point, perhaps, but if it’s poetic license, it’s a base sort of poetry, one that seems to be catering to readers who still laugh at the word “penis.” Likewise, a woman who has a “tortoiseshell tattooed over the entirety of her shaved skull.” Do we also need the fact of her having been a “personal anal sex trainer” to understand how damaged she is? Or after hearing about “The smack, the crack…all those gun-to-the-temple whimpers about my dead mother…,” was it also necessary for yet another former addict to have eaten “some sadistic dealer’s turd on a Portugese sweet roll for the promise of a bindle”?
The lapses are few, but they do give the uncomfortable sense that, for all his invention, Lipsyte is sometimes milking a very tawdry formula. Granted, it’s a little ridiculous to argue acceptable debasement levels for junkies or questions of nuance when deploying expressions like “hippie tang,” but for a writer who is so specific in his word selection, creating a world populated to a large degree by perennial adolescents for whom this language still means something beyond sensationalism, nothing dispels the suspension of disbelief more abruptly than an affected indecency or superfluous quirk. If, as Lipsyte put it in an interview with The Quarterly Conversation, “Every morpheme counts,” then more time should be spent counting provocations, especially when they stop functioning as keys to character perspective, and become cheap prods for giggles under the cloak of satire.
Interesting then to consider “The Dungeon Master.” Here, a group of high schoolers play Dungeons and Dragons under the control of the eponymous Dungeon Master, a sadistic, mentally unstable teen with a history of assault, indecent exposure, and other rumored transgressions. His mother is dead. His father, a child psychiatrist, sits in front of her picture, playing guitar and singing dolorous ballads. The Dungeon Master is cruel, and refuses to acknowledge reality. He is a Lipsyte grotesque in his formative years.
But there’s something about these kids that brings the best out of Lipsyte, both in terms of restraint and a welcome sense of tenderness. It’s by far his most empathetic story, and the cold eye cast previously on his objects of satire has been replaced here by a reverent one. The narrator, not yet broken by cynicism and disappointment, practically radiates benign innocence. To follow his journey is to see escapism changing from a soaring of the imagination to its ruination of the spirit, and something about the trajectory seems to have inspired Lipsyte beyond formula into something more touching and mournful:
“When last we met,” the Dungeon Master begins, “Olaf the thief had been caught stealing a loaf of pumpernickel from the village bakery. A halfling baker’s boy had cornered our friend with a bread knife…
“The situation begs the question,” the Dungeon Master says, sips from a can of strawberry milk. “Is bread the staff of life or the staff of death?”
“What does that mean?” Cherninsky says.
“Read more. Enrich yourself.”
“We all read,” Brendan says.
“I mean books,” says the Dungeon Master. “I can’t believe you’re a wizard.”
“Don’t kill me in a bakery,” Cherninsky says.
“Don’t steal bread.”
“What do you want? I’m a thief.”
Cherninsky rolls, dies, hops out of his chair.
“So why’d you get detention?” he says.
“When did I get detention?”
“Today,” I say. “You got it today.”
The Dungeon Master peers at me over his screen.
“Today, bold ranger, I watched a sad little pickpocket bleed out on a bakery floor. That’s the only thing that happened today. Get it?”
I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.
To the boys, the Dungeon Master’s illness is blatant, sometimes overwhelming. He plays on the participants’ fear of death by assailing them with warthogs, rabid squirrels, rectal cancer, and by killing off anyone who approaches victory. But as the narrator notes,
I don’t really have better things to do. I could do what I did before I started going to the Varellis’. I could come home and eat too much peanut butter and hide in my room. I could lie in bed and think about Lucy Mantooth, toss a batch, nap until dinnertime. I could watch TV and fake doing my homework. But I’m not sure those are better things.
The narrator’s situation, his alternatives, and his willingness to endure the manipulations of the Dungeon Master in lieu of crushing boredom or the options offered by his co-player Cherninsky (to smoke weed, watch his neighbor take a shower, start a band with stolen equipment neither of them can play) form as resonant a portrayal of the suburban vacuum as I can remember reading. But this endurance has its limits, and the game finally ends following one particularly twisted bit of invention, when the Dungeon Master turns a dying shape-shifter into Cherninsky’s sister, dead from drowning in real life, dead, “drenched, draped in seaweed,” in their game:
I stand, whack the screen off the Dungeon Master’s desk, see the dice, the sheets of graph paper, the manuals and numerical tables. There are doodles on the blotter. Cross-hatched vaginas with angel wings. They soar through ballpoint clouds.
‘I said never touch the screen,’ the Dungeon Master says.
‘And I say don’t flash girls you will never have at the ice rink. Don’t set fire to your shits in the parking lot. You’re a mental case. They should have kept you locked up.’
The Dungeon Master comes around the desk, and I think he’s about to make a speech. He lowers his head and spears me in the gut. We crash to the floor. He squeezes my throat. I palm his chin, push. Marco screams, and I’m almost out of air when Brendan climbs the Dungeon Master’s back, bites his head. They both tumble away. The door bangs open and [The Dungeon Master’s father] Doctor Varelli leans in.
‘Play nice, you goddamn puppies!’ he howls, shuts the door.
We lie there, heaving. My wrist throbs. I smell raspberry soda in the carpet.
The Dungeon Master paws at the blood on his head. Brendan rubs his tooth.
‘You children,’ the Dungeon Master says, rises, lumbers off. We hear him yell at his father in the kitchen. A loser, he calls Doctor Varelli. A lesbian. …
I crawl over to a window. In the next yard, some kids kick a ball. It looks wonderful.
There is an official after-school Dungeons and Dragons club, and the narrator, who had once envisioned it as “gifted children dreaming up splendors, not middle trackers squirming under a nutso’s moods,” joins in:
We fly dragons, battle giants, build castles, raise armies, families, crops. But it’s all too majestic, really. No goblin child will shank you for your coin pouch. You’ll never die from a bad potato. I miss the indignities.
Of course, what he really misses is a world of unrestrained creativity. Beyond the Varellis’, he finds that the normal don’t dream the same way, that the world is evidently split between the mad and the mundane. So he quits and retreats back to his “old routine: peanut butter, batch, nap.” And one day on the way home, he’s picked up by the Dungeon Master, who provides him with the theme of this entire book:
Remember all the newspaper stories about how the game makes kids crazy? Makes them do horrible things? …Love those. Take, for example, suicides. The game doesn’t create suicides. If anything, it postpones them.
The Dungeon Master drives to a scenic overlook, a sheer cliff dropping to the Hudson River, and as he revs the engine, the narrator thinks, “We’re going to fly like a dragon after all. Part of me is ready. Maybe it’s the part that kept me in Doctor Varelli’s study so long. I grip my seat and await ignition, fire, grim ascent.”
Instead, the Dungeon Master turns around, takes him home, and assures him that one day he will really do it. But if the other stories are any indication, there will be something later, more harrowing than a role-playing game, to prolong his end, and the grim ascent for the narrator will entail him chasing a whole other sort of dragon.
Technically, these are comedies. They have happy endings, if you consider not committing suicide, yet, a happy ending. But The Fun Parts is also an often stunning piece of tragic literature. Which happens to be really funny. And also really not. It’s a requiem for the American escapist, and its jokes are quips at the wake.
Steve Danziger is managing editor of Fiction magazine, teacher at City College, member of the Terranova Theater Collective, volunteer at the Housing Works Bookstore, and loiterer at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.