'The Ask' Puts White Collar Misery In The Cross Hairs

The Ask
The Ask: A Novel
By Sam Lipsyte
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

Sam Lipsyte's 2004 novel Home Land took the form of one man's discursive update to his alumni newsletter — albeit one packed with more brutal, bitterly funny truth than is typical of the form. ("Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.")

That book, which was embraced with a swift and cultlike fervor by lovers of pitch-black comedy, evinced three aspects of Lipsyte's work that emerge even sharper in his new novel, The Ask: sentences you can bounce a quarter off of; pleasantly shaggy plotting that makes only a dutiful nod toward the notion of narrative urgency; and jokes. Good ones, that land.

The Ask's Milo Burke is a frustrated husband, worried father and office drone recently let go from his position at the unremarkable New York City university where, decades before, he'd been a semipromising art student. The job he'd fallen into was one ex-semiprodigy Milo found cruelly ironic: "Our group raised funds and materials for the university's arts programs. People paid vast sums of money so that their progeny could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk."

But soon after he's fired for insulting the fatuous daughter of a particularly wealthy university patron, the school is contacted by one of Milo's old classmates, now a powerful and ludicrously wealthy man. Milo is offered a second chance: If he can get his old friend to donate, and donate big, he can have his old job back.

You can count on Lipsyte to sculpt sentences of muscular prose loaded with solid, old-fashioned gags, and thank God for that. He's determined that the comic novel must be comical, not simply humorous. Not for him, that now-pandemic species of light, supercilious literary irony that inspires in the reader a knowing smirk. Lipsyte aims instead for the gut laugh of rueful recognition: the noise that's forced out of you upon reading a thought you're ashamed to have thought, and have never told to anyone.

Sam Lipsyte i i

Sam Lipsyte's novel Home Land was a New York Times Notable Book and received the first annual Believer Book Award. Robert Reynolds hide caption

itoggle caption Robert Reynolds
Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte's novel Home Land was a New York Times Notable Book and received the first annual Believer Book Award.

Robert Reynolds

Which is why, as The Ask ambles along its picaresque and circuitous pathway, you so rarely find yourself growing impatient. Lipsyte's language is beautifully crafted stuff, yes, but he employs it in service to a larger, coherent purpose that makes his many narrative digressions worth the detour. Those jokes, for example, about Milo's son's new-age daycare center, which closes suddenly one morning "due to pedagogical conflicts," are just one way The Ask sets about dissecting Lipsyte's true subject: class in America.

You feel it most keenly in the unbridgeable gap that stretches between sad, hapless Milo and his old friend Purdy, a hyperarticulate (and just plain hyper) tycoon who has replaced his cocaine habit with binges at all-night candy stores. The two men were once classmates, housemates, confidants and friends, but even as Milo gets drawn into Purdy's world of impossible wealth and embarrassing secrets, Milo remains a clumsy interloper, a born outsider.

It's biting stuff, but there's heart here, too, especially in Lipsyte's depiction of the relationship between Milo and his young son Bernie. There's heart, but not schmaltz: Again and again, Lipsyte shows Milo addressing his son as if the boy were an adorable towheaded moppet out of a '60s sitcom, only to have Bernie respond like some kind of thoughtless, self-obsessed creature completely incapable of empathy. Which is to say: like a real kid.

By the time The Ask is over, Milo will have endured much larger injuries to his already hemorrhaging self-esteem. What's singular about the novel — what inspires the laughter of rueful recognition, page after page — is the sharply observed way Lipsyte shows us a man so like our ordinary, unheroic selves: A man who doesn't so much triumph over adversity as find a way to broker a deal with it.

Excerpt: 'The Ask'

The Ask
The Ask: A Novel
By Sam Lipsyte
Hardcover, 304 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $25

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.

Chapter One

America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic's whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who'd stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? 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," said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.

We all loved Horace, his clownish pronouncements. He was a white kid from Armonk who had learned to speak and feel from a half-dozen VHS tapes in his father's garage. Besides, here at our desks with our turkey wraps, I did not disagree.

But I let him have it. It was my duty. We were in what they call a university setting. A bastion of, et cetera. Little did I know this was my last normal day at said bastion, that my old friend Purdy was about to butt back into my world, mangle it. I just figured this was what my worst teachers used to call a teachable moment.

"Horace," I said. "That's a pretty sexist way to frame a discussion of America's decline, don't you think? Not to mention racist."

"I didn't mention anybody's race," said Horace.

"You didn't have to."

"P.C. robot."

"Fascist dupe."

"Did you get avocado on yours?"

"Fattening," I said.

"Don't worry, baby," said Horace. "I like big women."

"What about hairy ones?" I said, parted my shirt to air my nipple fuzz. Horace let me be a cretin with him. You could call him my infantilism provider, though you'd sound like an idiot. Otherwise, I was ostensibly upstanding, a bald husband, a slabbellied father.

"Gentlemen," said our supervisor, Vargina, coming out from her command nook. "Did you send off those emails about the Belgian art exchange?"

Horace swiveled back to his monitor with the mock panic of a sitcom serf. Vargina took scant notice of our talk, tolerated foul banter for purposes of morale. But the fact remained, we had forgotten the afternoon's assignment. The gods of task flow did not easily forgive.

Where we worked was in the development office of a mediocre university in New York City. It was an expensive and strangely obscure institution, named for its syphilitic Whig founder, but we often called it, with what we considered a certain panache, the Mediocre University at New York City. By we, I mean Horace and I. By often, I mean once.

Our group raised funds and materials for the university's arts programs. People paid vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk. Still, the sums didn't quite do the trick. Not in the cutthroat world of arts education. Our job was to grovel for more money. We could always use more video cameras, more caulk, or a dance studio, or a gala for more groveling. The asks liked galas, openings, recitals, shows. They liked dinner with a famous filmmaker for them to fawn over or else dismiss as frivolous.

An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was a give. The asks knew little about the student work they funded. Who could blame them? Some of the art these brats produced wouldn't stand up to the dreck my three-year-old demanded we tack to the kitchen wall. But I was biased, and not just because I often loved my son. Thing was, I'd been just like these wretches once. Now they stared through me, as though I were merely some drone in their sight line, a pathetic object momentarily obstructing their fabulous horizon. They were right. That's exactly what I was.

A solitudinous roil, my bitterness. Horace, after all, was their age. He had no health insurance, just hope. Our rainmaker, Llewellyn, seemed born to this job, keen for any chance to tickle the rectal bristles of the rich with his Tidewater tongue. He was almost never in the office, instead sealing the deal on a Gulfstream IV to Bucharest, or lying topside on a Corfu yacht, slathered in bronzer.

Llewellyn delivered endowed chairs, editing suites, sculpture gardens. My record was not so impressive. My last big ask, for example, had failed to yield a few plasma TVs from the father of a recent film graduate.

Mr. Ramadathan had mortgaged his electronics store so his son could craft affecting screenplays about an emotionally distant, workaholic immigrant's quest for the American dream. But the father's giddiness had begun to wear off. The boy was unemployable. Now Mr. Ramadathan was maybe not so eager to relinquish his showroom models.

I'd made the hot, khaki-moistening hike past all the car dealerships and muffler shops on Northern Boulevard in Queens, stood in the sleek, dingy cool of the store. Mr. Ramadathan sat near the register in a wicker chair. The plasmas were not on display. Sold or hidden, I had no idea. Mr. Ramadathan stared at me, at the sweat patches on my crotch. He pointed toward some old video game consoles, a used floor fan, dregs of the dream.

"Please," he said, "take those. So that others may learn."

Unlike the time Llewellyn secured a Foley stage for the film department, there was no celebration on the Mediocre patio. No sour chardonnay got guzzled in my honor, nor did any lithe director of communications flick her tongue in my ear, vow to put me on the splash page of Excellence, the university's public relations blog.

If not so ecstatic in her position as Llewellyn, Vargina seemed happy enough, or at least adopted a mode of wise, unruffled decency in the office. She'd been a crack baby, apparently due to her mother being a crackhead, one of the early ones, the baking soda vanguard. Vargina was a miracle, and that's maybe the only time I have used the word sincerely. Her mother had named her the word her name resembled. A sympathetic nurse added the "r."

Excerpted from The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. Copyright 2010 by Sam Lipsyte. Published in March 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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