Sam Lipsyte’s short stories are a throwback to that time—hard to believe it was just ten years ago, more or less—when recession ruled the marketplace, Rush Limbaugh ruled the airwaves, and, in the peaceful realm of the American short story, Carver’s coed army, having vanquished the brazen experimentalists Coover, Barth, and Barthelme, filled the glossies and quarterlies alike with muted declarations that artifice, and not the writer, was king of the fictional page. They called it minimalism, and while the short stories in Lipsyte’s Venus Driveoften adhere to the formal dictates of this lost ascetic practice—unnamed first-person narrators; uninflected dialogue; and a uniform, reasonable length—his sentences burn with the reckless and gaudy flame of homemade pyrotechnics, arcing up and up beyond the backyards, carports, tract homes, ailing parents, and disenchanted children of boilerplate suburbia to the far horizon of the literary landscape, lighting what amounts to a third way.
In the collection’s opening salvo, “Old Soul,” the first of Lipsyte’s hopeless narrators drifts from a peep show to a “Jew-hater’s bar” to his sister’s hospital room (she’s in a coma); there he dismisses her boyfriend, locks the door, and, instead of picking up a manual about the “grief process,” slips his hand beneath her hospital gown and says, “Hey you.” Another narrator (“I’m Slavering”) leaves a cokeless party to find his childhood friend Gary, now a dealer, and the two end up reminiscing about “The Hobby Shop, the Pitch ‘n’ Putt, Big Vin’s Pizza” back home, and the time Gary sawed his own thumb off with a Black and Decker (“I wanted to watch TV,” Gary claims) just a few days before his bar mitzvah. “The Drury Girl” offers more family illness, medicinal dope smoking, a prepubescent striptease, and a final, fading image of the eponymous baby-sitter running outside to greet her boyfriend “at rest in his Naugahyde bounty, that great Godly twitch of electric guitar when she opened his door, her roaring off from all that was lived or near us.”
Lipsyte’s men are solitary losers (see “Beautiful Game”), his women are unreachable except with drugs or in adolescent dreams (or both), and nothing is spared the skewering of his outsider’s eye—not the pieties of the indie rock scene, nor the paper fortunes of Silicon Alley (“My Life, For Promotional Purposes Only”). Redemption takes only one form—language—and in that, it must be said, Lipsyte summons grace and beauty from the strangest places in the human subdivision. “Who needs life, people?” one of Lipsyte’s antiheroes asks, and the answer, though never stated, is painfully obvious.
Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive was published by Open City Books in May.