Readers who rooted for Milo Burke, the beleaguered fundraiser at the center of Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask, will find a new gang of the hilarious and desperate to cheer on in Lipsyte’s first short-story collection since 2000’s Venus Drive. About to be fired, experiencing “great moral confusion,” or just witnessing the wrong event, the raving underdogs of The Fun Parts relate the jams they can’t escape.
Lipsyte is a scholar of power between people in The Fun Parts, and the lower the stakes are, the better. Some of the collection’s most memorable stories take place among teenagers, inmates, and low-level employees whose general powerlessness leaves them scrapping for what little authority is left to them. To access that power, they claim knowledge of the world they don’t have, which inevitably betrays them, and Lipsyte often chooses to meet them at that moment—best defined by the teenage track star in “Ode To Oldcorn” describing a coach with the contradictory sentence, “His smile said it all, though I wasn’t exactly sure what it said.” The high-school misfit running a Dungeons & Dragons game in “The Dungeon Master” can’t get away with making up his own rules forever. The scheme concocted by an addict to clear his name by writing a children’s book in “The Worm In Philly” collapses before it even starts. But that doesn’t stop either protagonist from following through with their schemes.
These personalities defend themselves in variations on furious first-person narrative, with the urgency of people being dragged offstage by a sideshow hook, but their tone always harmonizes with some system of internal logic. The James Frey-esque narrator losing his kingdom in “Nate’s Pain Is Now” would clearly accept acknowledgment over other earthly reward, though his former fans are disinclined to offer him either. The book’s only misfire, “This Appointment Occurs In The Past,” takes advantage of that emotional push to get stylish and hollow, as a man visiting a dying college friend is drawn into re-enacting a Pushkin story they enjoyed in their salad days.
Lipsyte’s talent for wringing pathos from absurdity increases exponentially as his subjects grow in peculiarity, but he doesn’t treat them as freaks; instead, their oddness empowers them. The narrator of “The Wisdom Of The Doulas” presents himself as the only male doula—he insists “doulo” is a word—and immediately starts giving orders at his new clients’ house. But under the weight of his wall of words, his plea eventually elicits sympathy as his credits come under assault: Won’t anyone acknowledge the good he’s done? Lipsyte loves his fakers and pretenders, no more so than when they are being found out, and he lets them believe they’re only staking claim to what’s rightfully theirs.