Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
Author: Sam Lipsyte
Publisher: Farrer, Strauss and Giroux
Sam Lipsyte knows how to start a story (he should; he teaches writing in Columbia University's School of Arts). Here are three examples from his collection The Fun Parts:
—"Trauma this, atrocity that, people ought to keep their traps shut," said Mandy's father. American traps tended to hang open. Pure crap poured out. What he and the other had gone through shouldn't have a name, he told her friend Tovah all those years later in the nursing home. People gave name to things so they could tell stories about them, goddamn fairy tales about children who got out alive."
—“My wife wanted another baby. But I thought Philip was enough. A toddler is a lot. I couldn't picture us going through the whole ordeal again. We'd just gotten our lives back. We needed to snuggle with them, plan their futures."
—“Everybody waited for me to get skinny. My father said it could be any day. My mother said if I got skinny, it would improve my moods. She promised me a new wardrobe, one more congruent with my era, my region. My sister said if I got skinny, there would the possibility of hand jobs from her friends in the Jazz Dancing Club. Blow jobs, even. All the jobs. It was only fair, she said. Her friends had brothers. She'd done her part.”
The stories are funny—sometimes laugh-out-loud funny—and sometimes grim and sometimes funny/grim. But they are also difficult to sum up fairly and accurately. The flap copy writer does a better job than I can do: "A boy eats his way to self-discovery . . . [a boy] must battle the reality-brandishing monster preying on his fantasy realm . . . an aerobics instructor, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, makes the most shocking leap imaginable to save her soul . . . Other stories feature a grizzled and possibly deranged male doula, a doomsday hustler about to face the multi-universal truth of 'the real-ass jumbo,' and a tawdry glimpse of the northern New Jersey High school shot-putting circuit, circa 1986." In other words, Lipsyte's range is prodigious.
He writes the stories in short bursts with line breaks, usually filled with crisp dialogue, but even the prose between the dialogue crackles: "Goth girls, coke ghosted, rehabbed at twelve and stripping sober, begged for my sagas of degradation, epiphany. They pressed in with their inks, their dyes, their labial metals and scarified montes, cheered their favorite passages, the famous one, where I ate some sadistic dealer's turd on a Portuguese sweet roll for the promise of a bindle, or broke into a funeral parlor and slit a corpse open for the formaldehyde . . . "
My problem with the stories—and I admit it's my problem and may not be anyone else's—is that they're too bouncy, too rich while being stripped down, too glittery surface. They're written for people with short attention spans. They're not written to be read one after another. Nothing sticks. Once I put the book down, I could not recall a week later any of the characters or their situations, only brief glimpses of a situation or a character remained.
That said, I think anyone interested in writing could read The Fun Parts to see how Lipsyte does it. How he can set up a situation or a character in a few sentences. How he uses dialogue to reveal (or hide) character and advance the action. One caution: The style is so vivid you have to take care not to allow it to creep into your own writing. One Sam Lipsyte writing like Sam Lipsyte is enough.