In the failed-males-sabotaging-their-own-lives genre of storytelling, sub-genres abound. The latest variation takes its cues from our on-going economic conditions; guys lose their jobs and go into free fall as does Matthew in Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.
Sam Lipsyte’s take on this theme finds Milo Burke (this is a book with a number of strangely-named characters, for effect we assume) laid off from his job as a development officer at an obscure private college in New York, otherwise known as Mediocre University. The usual complication ensue: he can’t pay his bills, his wife may be fooling around and his kid begins to treat him with distrust. How his life unravels and how it loosely ties back up into a new knot, square to half-hitch, makes Lipsyte’s tale stand out from the kind of story we’ve heard too many times. Statistically, happy endings may be on the increase. But they’re still in the minority. Frustration, as it is in The Ask, seems the theme of the day.
Frustration is the source of much of the book’s humor as well as its dividing line. Readers who feel only frustration with Milo’s situation, his inability to (mostly) take things seriously, his appetite for porn, doughnuts and turkey wraps, and, especially, his desire to be more a naughty boy than he is, will find the book frustrating. Those who enjoy Lipsyte’s satiric take on fund raising, his celebration of self-loathing and the digs at the egoism of the rich, powerful and unfaithful will find joy in those same frustrations.
That this is a book about America’s descent into meaninglessness is apparent from the first page. Horace, the forever-office temp who turns capre diem into a slacker anthem, defines our country as “a run-down and demented pimp” whose “whoremaster days are through.” What’s left? “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,'” Horace declares.
Of course, our hero must take issue. “That’s a pretty sexist way to frame a discussion of America’s decline, don’t you think? Not to mention racist,” Milo counters, apropos to nothing. Lipsyte, in classic satiric form, has defined the current state of discussion in the U.S.: real questions hounded by cliched, knee-jerk reactions, be they claims of discrimination, outcries of deficit spending or paens to free enterprise. You want to discuss details? Climb over this first.
It’s no coincidence that the metaphoric complaints come from a guy named Horace, that our doofus hero is named Milo or that the woman who holds power over them both is a big-bosomed, crack-whore’s daughter named Vargina (the “r” inserted after naming, Lipsyte tells us, by a sympathetic nurse). Side twists in this satiric corkscrew include four-year-old son Bernie’s day care center, Happy Salamander, run by some “young people with fancy education degrees and a tin of Tinker Toys” who operate under a “dense, pedagogical manifesto.” Then there’s a deck carpenter’s pitch for a Food Channel-styled program about death-row inmates’ last meal entitled “Dead Man Dining.” And don’t forget Milo’s weird parents, living and dead. There’s a lot here that’s funny in a sort of sad way.
The plot is simple enough. After losing his job for offending the art student daughter of a deep-pockets donor (“You made his daughter doubt herself, artistically. He had to buy her an apartment in Copenhagen so she could heal”), Milo is asked back to help secure a donation from a former college buddy named Purdy. Irony here is that Purdy asked Milo to join his fist-over-hand money-making ventures right out of school. Milo chose to pursue his art instead. Purdy has a troubled, disabled Iraq War-veteran son. Purdy has chosen Milo to be a sort of go-between, shuttling bribe money and generally keeping an eye on the son. The son, of course, stays anything but quiet.
The reward in all this? Possibly a huge endowment for the university which would mean Milo gets his job back. With money, the family stays together. Happy ending.
As Lydia Millet points out in her review of the book in The New York Times, true satire is rare in today’s literature, but pervasive in such vehicles as The Colbert Report and The Onion. Maybe that’s because literature demands more than just funny. And Lipsyte, plenty funny, provides it, not just making fun of certain character types and closely-held beliefs (meritocracy) bur raising real ethical, existential questions.
So what’s the larger target here? It’s certainly not men like Milo. Much of what happens to him is out of his control — almost as much as is under his control — and we can’t help feel sympathetic for the sap. Yet Milo is more than some Gulliver, a vehicle to lampoon everything else. Maybe the real target of Lipsyte’s satiric skills is the men-sabotaging-their-own-lives genre itself. True or not, Lipsyte has given the form new life, all because he didn’t take it that seriously.–Cabbage Rabbit