Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

It’s a war out there. And this book is about war crimes. The kind that happen when failed painters take jobs as development agents for the arts departments of mediocre universities, sucking up to successful wealth-creators to ask them to support the drug habits of university arts brats who produce drek. But the tap of money from wealthy donors was running dry, and our failed painter Milo Burke was now a failed development agent.

Milo’s last big “ask” was to Mr. Ramadathan who had mortgaged his electronics store so that his son could “craft affecting screenplays about an emotionally distant, workaholic immigrant’s quest for the American dream.” It had meant a trip to Mr. Ramadathan’s dusty showroom in an outer borough where only used video game consoles and an old floor fan were on display.

I adored this beginning to Lipsyte’s deeply funny and intentional novel, highlighting as it does a reality of sorts behind the absurd “asks” of college development offices, and the wildly improbable and inappropriate demands of many university students in today’s America.

Lipsyte’s narrator, Milo Burke, is hovering close to the edge of despair. Despite his confusion and frustration over the strange things people do and say and how we live, Milo is not a cynical man. He loves his wife and son, and wants nothing more than to be able to provide for them. He worries about being a good dad to Bernie, his lumberjack-mouthed preschooler with a foreskin fixation.

A neighbor Milo liked “could pull off the role of loving and attentive parent with a lit cigarette in his mouth..or in his stubby fingers, which he’d hold with such care away from his daughter’s braids when she charged over to collapse on his lap and file howling grievance against her brother’s style of playhouse play… He was a throwback papa…horseshit of course, but it warmed the cheap parts of me.” That man died with his entire family, “wiped out by a beverage truck on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway” one day, leaving Milo musing that man never had to worry about being a shitty father, leaving debts because of his cancer from cigarette smoking. But Milo still had to worry about being a shitty father because he was alive. Poor confused Milo was envious of a dead man, an unrepentant cigarette smoker.

Antihero Milo hits up his own mother for a decent-sized contribution, whether to his rent fund or his college-fund, we are unsure.
Mother: "How much?"
Milo: "Ten thousand."
Mother: "Absolutely not...the system’s rigged for white men and you still can’t tap in..."
Milo: "Okay, you wrinkled old spidercunt, have it your way."

I have to say, literature that gives me great swear words is always a draw. Shakespeare did it, Lipsyte does it.

Milo doesn’t believe in cockamamie conspiracy theories, nor those that say happiness might have something to do with acceptance and love. It’s all part of the trick, the scam to get us to believe that our rage and resentment is our own problem--something we might need to deal with because we look f—ing ridiculous blaming anything outside of ourselves for not seizing every opportunity to find true sources of happiness and love and fulfillment in the wealthiest, if not the greatest, country on earth. A war within; a war without.

Lipsyte keeps the metaphor about war working when he introduces a story about a home invasion featuring Milo and his college buddies, one of whom is his next big “ask,” the interweb magnate Purdy. But Purdy, like all big potential donors, has an “ask” of his own before he concedes to any kind of “give.”

Purdy’s illegitimate son Don is an actual soldier, returned from Iraq...without his legs. He has two new ones, made of titanium, but generally speaking, he did not come off the better for that exchange. He is still angry. He is angry because of the insipid American culture he sees around him, his sacrifice made flesh. Don manages his rage another way from what we know Milo will do. He had different training.

I came on this book because I had a long car trip coming up; I flipped through the mostly ghastly offerings at my local audio library and came across this title. Sam Lipsyte’s name rang a distant bell but I couldn’t remember why. I looked him up on Goodreads to make sure I wasn’t going to get a romance (you know, like “The Proposal”) and saw a very queer video interview that made me sure I was going to borrow this book. I present it to you here:

Mark Savras is an author and the man behind the blog The Elegant Variation. That blog never really changed very much while I listed it on my own blog for a year or so-—hoping, perhaps, to catch reflected glory. A Milo move, I think now. I watched this darn video clip a couple of times to make sure I didn’t misinterpret what I thought I saw. Savras was really out to lunch, wasn’t he? A little like our boy Milo?
Milo, looking at his hands: “I stared at my own hands: soft, expressive things, gifted even, like specially bred, lovingly shaved gerbils.”

I listened to this Macmillan Audiobook brilliantly read by the author. I am quite sure Lipsyte is the only one who could have read this with the attitude and emphases it needed to reflect the true confusion and pathos of our antihero, Milo. I saw an Audiofile review complaining the listener had to “pay attention every moment” which seems a queer kind of criticism to me. The audio won a Listen Up Award and a Publisher’s Weekly Award. It is available for Whispersync on and I would recommend that choice: you will want to go back and see his jokes in print—he is very funny. And check out that Isaac Babel reference. I plan to.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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