These are golden times for American satirists. After years of relentless brilliance, George Saunders finally seems to have crossed into the mainstream with his absurdist short-story collection “Tenth of December.” Now Sam Lipsyte seems to be making his move, backing up his smart and very funny 2010 novel “The Ask” with his own splashy compilation of short fiction, “The Fun Parts.”
Lipsyte is a more conventional writer than Saunders, but then again, who isn’t? Certainly the characters who populate his stories are more recognizable and the scenes often unfold in Manhattan and New Jersey, or a twisted version of those places — “Lipsyteland.” Lipsyte is most commonly praised for his hilarious flights of fancy, but he is also a perceptive observer, capable of impaling a lifestyle with one sparse aside.
One of the most fun parts of “The Fun Parts” is the story “The Wisdom of the Doulas.” It introduces us to Mitch, who is a “doulo” — a title he prefers to doula — working with the Grottwald family after the birth of their second child, Prague. Mitch is not a typical child-carer, and only an insignificant part of that is because he’s a man. Right off the bat, he informs us: “The Grottwald baby, well, he might only be two days old, but I can already predict he’s going to be a miserable little turd.”
His methods for clearing Mrs. Grottwald’s painfully clogged milk ducts would not be in any doula handbook, should such a thing exist, which in Lipsyteland it almost certainly does. The premise is silly, but never ridiculous.
Elsewhere, we meet the drug-addicted narrator of “The Worm in Philly,” who decides to escape his money troubles by writing a biography of the boxer Marvin Hagler. It should be a book for children, he believes, because they will respond to his triumph over extreme odds. Besides, he won’t have to write so many words, and that means he will be paid more quickly. That he has never written anything before should not be an impediment: he has faith that he is a natural “wordslinger.”
You may be noticing a trend here. Lipsyte’s characters are often feckless, invariably deluded and they will typically end the story in an even worse place than the unappealing one where they started. But their stories are told with tenderness and a surprising compassion, rather than being just a launch pad for gags.
This is partly because Lipsyte often writes about people who have endured a lifetime of being ridiculed. “Ode to Oldcorn” is narrated by a teenage boy who is in the school shot put team. He is obsessed with an old-time legend called Rick Oldcorn, who won gold at the 1968 Olympics, and eventually he meets him. In reality, Oldcorn is fat, disillusioned and wears “cop shades, a T-shirt for a titty bar.” He announces: “I want all the beer in your town. … And I want teen poot if that’s available. Let’s ride.”
Lipsyte is familiar with disappointment. His debut novel, “The Subject Steve,” was published on Sept. 11, 2001; his second, “Home Land,” was rejected by maybe 30 publishers. It would eventually win awards and was a New York Times “notable book of the year” in 2005.
But it was only with “The Ask” that reviews started to concentrate on what he was doing right, rather than his flaws.
Certainly some stories in “The Fun Parts” are more affecting than others. “The Climber Room” might just be my favorite and it contains a sentiment that sums up reality for all of Lipsyte’s protagonists: “It’s very hard. Here. In America. In the world.”