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September 14, 2014

“The Fun Parts”

by Anne Paddock

You think you know yourself, the world. You believe you’ve got a bead on everybody else’s bullshit, but what about your own?

Sam Lipsyte is a novelist and short story writer who recently (2013) published his fifth book: The Fun Parts – a collection of 13 short stories that rail against the wealthy, the weak, and the stupid. Humorous and often dark, the short stories are filled with characters who seem familiar – Holocaust survivors, the overweight teenager, the high school coach obsessed with the star athlete of another generation, the self-centered opportunist, the successful businessman – but who also seem distant and unreachable.  Everyone is damaged, deranged, in despair, dependent, selling out, or an outright lunatic in this contemporary collection of short stories.

fun-partsIn The Climber Room, the protagonist is Tovah Gold, a 36-year old struggling poet who lost her job at an east side prep school after the stock market crash and takes a part-time position at a private Pre-K school where she is reminded of the difference between the haves and the have-nots. And, in The Wisdom of the Doulas, the reader is introduced to the Gotwalds – “uptight success types” who hire a male doula to help with their newborn son.  Rather than be alone and totally responsible for a newborn and a toddler, the Gotwalds settle for what they want to hear in this comical spoof on parenting, breastfeeding, and childcare.

Those who suffer from a dependency on alcohol, drugs, or food and those who suffer from emotional distress are singled out in many of Lipsyte’s short stories. In Deniers, a recovering addict teaching ballet classes at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) is attracted to an unstable man who could only be seen as an enemy by her Holocaust surviving father. In Snacks, the theme is the very lonely life of an obese boy who is just as cruel as his tormentors. And in an ode to glory days, three of the “fattest, strongest boys in the class” are taken under the wing of a coach with blinders who tries to motivate them with stories of a star shot putter of years past in Ode to Oldcorn.  Most disturbing of all is the frightening story laid out in The Dungeon Master of what happens when teenage boys blur the line between reality and computer games in their quest for acceptance And, in Expressive, a sociopath focuses on manipulating people to get what he wants by exploiting the good intentions of others.

The stupid and absurd seem to go hand-in-hand in many of the short stories that often remind the reader of George Saunders – another master writer who magnifies the excesses of our society to make a point in a short story.  In The Worm in Philly, a former addict is out of money and wants to write a book about a boxer and is so singularly focused that he can’t see what is going on around him. And in The Republic of Empathy, the reader connects the dots with seemingly unrelated characters who are all somehow related in a world whose people believe the government doesn’t make mistakes. In This Appointment Occurs in the Past, a cheeky barista marries an heiress and eventually ends up in a strange setup that links the past to the future. And, in the Real-Ass Jumbo, the protagonist is Gunderson, a self-proclaimed prophet who claims the world is coming to an end but whose real focus is on fame: lecture tours, a cable deal, and friendships with rock stars. A sad story about the dangers of fame and need for adulation.

Two short stories – Peasley, and Nat’s Pain is Now – are exceptional and warrant more discussion. In Peasley, Lipsyte introduces the reader to The Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks in England, an idea found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks which included unused story premises first catalogued in The Crack Up – a collection of essays, unpublished letters, and notes compiled and edited after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. Lipsyte brilliantly questions and ties in the destiny of Rupert Brooke, the English poet who write The Solider and who died in 1915 at the age of 27 with the story of The Man Who Killed the Idea of Tanks in England, who is the protagonist of the story:  an old man stuck in tradition and image, afraid of change whose punishment for not seeing the benefits of  using modern technology is living a long life in a body that is slowly betraying him and taking away everything he values. Looking outside one day, he sees Peasley, the groundskeeper cutting the lawn with a new mechanized lawn mower and predictably protests the use of modern machinery thereby enabling the reader to understand the protagonist’s life sentence.

In Nat’s Pain is Now, Lipsyte invokes two important novels:  Bang the Drum Slowly (the 1956 baseball novel by Mark Harris about two ball players and a team that goes on to win the World Series)  and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy about a dance marathon during the Great Depression) in a story about a writer who has had two hit books and yearns for what was. A dark story about a writer’s insatiable need for fame and fortune.

The Fun Parts is an eclectic collection of short stories that evoke Judaism, being a New Yorker, the pitfalls of growing up fat, unathletic, and lonely in New Jersey while raising the questions related to wealth, income inequality, inept parenting, dependency, sexual orientation, reverse discrimination, and emotional stability by both those who can but don’t make good decisions and those incapable of anticipating consequences.

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