DIE LAUGHING

By Ben Fountain

Published: March 3, 2013

There’s a point at which garden-variety fecklessness bleeds into tragedy, but where? How? To what effect? For the answers to these and other pressing questions, you could do worse than look to the sublime mayhem of Sam Lipsyte’s new story collection, “The Fun Parts.” Lipsyte expertly works the line between hilarity and pathos, presenting characters who stay airborne only so long as they’re pedaling their rattletrap fantasy machines. The fun is watching how earnestly and furiously they pedal, their legs cranking faster and faster even as their fantasies roll into their final dives.

Not that everyone crashes and burns. Some crash, burn, then crawl out of the wreckage and scratch around for the means to pull themselves together. Women tend to fare better than men, sort of; or maybe it’s just that they achieve a bit more awareness. As a single, childless 36-year-old woman scraping by on a pre-K teacher’s wages in Manhattan, Tovah Gold of “The Climber Room” has reached the point where life is “nearly unlivable,” made worse by the sudden onset of baby yearnings: “She craved the bleakness of biology. It didn’t matter if the baby was hers, except it absolutely did. She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible.” Intrigued and repelled by the attentions of the geriatric father of one of her students – this dad, it turns out, is not only single but a computer zillionaire – Tovah indulges in elaborate marriage fantasies involving a baby, gobs of money and “so-called luxury problems.” Such are the dreams of the feckless, which is to say all of us. An off-hours baby-sitting gig at the man’s apartment brings matters to a head, and Tovah unloads with an eloquence that’s worth quoting at length:

“It’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world. For women. It’s a ... nightmare. Our choices are no choice. Everybody has a goddamn opinion, but nobody ever wants to help. The politicians, the culture, they push the idea of family, the importance of the mother, and they also push the idea of opportunities for women, but they screw us all on the stuff that counts, that will make it real. We are alone and suicidal or we have children and are suicidal. The only women who escape this are the rich. All the accomplished women in history had servants. I’m convinced of that. Even if it’s not true. It certainly feels ... true.”

The faint of heart may want to cover their eyes as Lipsyte’s characters crash, but I’d advise spreading your fingers ever so slightly, so you can keep watching. It’s too much fun not to, though if these are “the fun parts,” who needs the angsts and wastes of Russian literature? Plenty of angst and waste right here in America, or, to be specific, the Manhattan and North Jersey of Lipsyteland, which is cracked in all three senses of funny, damaged and deranged. The heroin-addicted narrator of “The Worm in Philly” conceives of getting quick cash by writing a children’s book about the boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler. “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.” Adventures of the cracked and feckless sort ensue, our druggie buoyed along by the demands of his addiction and “a positive outlook,” which he defines as “a trick whereby you convince yourself that the desolation of your world is a phase in your personal growth.” Even more outrageous in its premise is “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” in which Mitch, a postpartum doula – or doulo, as he insists on being called – inflicts his craft on the unsuspecting Gottwald family. Mitch is out for Mitch, and God save the rest; imagine a berserk Will Ferrell or Zach Galifianakis running his hustle in your home, a hustle that happens to have as its pretext the care and nurture of your newborn.

“It’s like a beer keg he can’t quite tap,” is how Mitch describes Baby Gottwald’s struggle to latch on. The doulo resorts to a highly invasive method to clear the mother’s clogged milk ducts, but hey, it works! Just before he’s Tasered by the cops. The story bounces along like a “Saturday Night Live” alumnus movie, silly, vastly improbable, winning you over in spite of yourself as the gags plumb the depths of the spiraling disaster.

“The Fun Parts” specializes in dangerous goofs like Mitch – it’s an all-American panoply of bums, jerks, users, losers and smug know-it-alls who really don’t know much of anything at all. Con men, most of them, but what’s a con job if not a fantasy hitched to profit motive? Lipsyte works the knucklehead angle to much more thoughtful effect in “This Appointment Occurs in the Past,” â(euro) ‰“Nate’s Pain Is Now” and “The Real-Ass Jumbo,” where the tone might be described as manic-meditative. In “This Appointment,” the unnamed narrator finds himself on the receiving end of the con, the fixed point around which his savage, much savvier college buddy runs circles. Sex, drugs, philosophy and gunplay are all mixed into a rich metaphysical stew, though the humble narrator makes no great claims for himself. “Yes, we could solve for why,” he confides, “but we could also eat another slice of coconut cake. Why won’t save you, anyway. Why makes it worse.” He strives to be “heart literate.” He wants to know “wise joy,” and ruined as he is at the end, he seems to attain some measure of such things.

Lipsyte raises the stakes in “Jumbo,” where we encounter the hustler as True Believer, the hustle being no less than saving the world. A former hack journalist, Gunderson drank “vision gumbo” with Ramon the shaman while on assignment down in Mexico, which led to a revelation: “Something huge was on tap, and if we didn’t evolve our asses quick, it would be bad huge.” A revolution in human consciousness is what’s required, and Gunderson urgently works to push the message with books, lecture tours and a cable TV deal. Updates from the other side come courtesy of a “machine elf” named Baltran, who enters the earthly realm through the divide between Gunderson’s sofa cushions. But when the end arrives in its weird and unexpected way, even Baltran is stumped. “And now what?” Gunderson asks as things come crashing down. “I don’t know, exactly,” Baltran answers. “The beat goes on?”

Revelation, wisdom, inner peace – they come hard in Lipsyte’s world, if they come at all, which doesn’t keep these stories from being, as my sisters would say, “a hoot.” There’s only one underachiever in the bunch, the heavy-handed “Republic of Empathy,” but even subpar Lipsyte delivers plenty of funk, spunk and fizz. His portrayals of adolescence are pitch-perfect heartbreakers, especially the saga of high school shot-putters in “Ode to Oldcorn.” “Deniers,” which may be the best of this fine collection, features the 30-year-old Mandy, teacher of cardio ballet at the Manhattan Jewish Community Center and daughter of Jacob, a Holocaust survivor with a mean streak. Mandy is recovering from a serious crack habit and a shattered childhood; 12-step meetings, cardio classes and closure fantasies fill her days until a tall, handsome stranger stalks into her life, looking, as it turns out, to exorcise his skinhead past.

“Are you even attracted to me?” Mandy asks him at one point. “Not in a healthy sense,” he answers. “I mean, I definitely went out of my way to find the cutest girl at the J.C.C.”

The fun parts? Sure, the fun parts. And pretty much everything else, too.

(Ben Fountain's novel, ``Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk,'' was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award.)
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