Sunday, December 16, 2007

Home Land

Review of Sam Lipsyte’s novel Home Land; this was in early 2005 in the Toronto Star.

Novelists have always found rich material in characters who are at odds with the world. But in North America in the years since World War II, an entire sprawling genre of alienated-young-man fiction has taken shape. Everywhere there are confessions of grownup Holden Caulfields adrift in a world of affluence. They disdain business and society and fetishize their own failures, yet somehow they rarely seem to suffer any real physical privation – their pain is the existential itch of the privileged.

Sam Lipsyte’s second novel belongs to that category, but to its credit, it’s firmly in the black-comedy subgenre. And it’s organized around a conceit so fitting and simple that I can’t quite believe it’s not been done before (though I confess no examples leap to mind). Home Land is narrated by a thirtysomething layabout, and it’s made up of letters to his high school’s alumni newsletter.

Eastern Valley High School of New Jersey has produced gods of the guitar and the baseball diamond, as well as rising stars in politics, business, and science. It’s also produced the underemployed Lewis Miner (class of ’89), who, as he declares at the outset, “did not pan out.” Over several weeks and a couple hundred pages, Lewis entertains his former classmates with painfully honest accounts of his masturbatory misadventures and drug-dazzled ambles about town, Or rather, he tries to entertain them: none of Lewis’s updates make it into the pages of “Catamount Notes,” to his growing frustration.

Lewis’s shoulders are stacked with chips that more earnest writers would build whole novels around: his mother’s dead, his father’s brutish and estranged, and his girlfriend’s ditched him to be closer to her own movie-star brother. Lewis keeps himself in drug money by writing “FakeFacts” for the in-house newsletter of a cola corporation, but mostly he hangs out with his best friend, Gary, a fellow class-of-’89 wastrel who has issues of his own. Gary (who first appeared in Lipsyte’s short-story collection Venus Drive) disgraced his parents with accusations of ritual sexual abuse, then sued his psychiatrist after deciding that his recovered memories were (probably) false. Lewis semi-affectionately refers to him as “the Retractor.”

With its offhand accounts of days and nights wasted away, the novel nicely captures the kind of relationship in which close friends encourage each other’s worst habits – what the shrinks call codependency. It’s also rich in secondary characters, such as Fontana, the former principal of Eastern Valley High, who suggests a couple-decades-older version of Lewis. There are also threatening drug dealers, preppie princesses, and blusteringly self-involved parents – a steady parade of bit players enlivens the action, and one never has the sense that they’re mere foils to Lewis.

They might be foils to Sam Lipsyte, though. Home Land isn’t really a character study and it isn’t really a state-of-our-culture satire (unlike its predecessor, The Subject Steve, which combined a light comedic touch with DeLillo-isms that strained to be epoch-defining). Mainly the novel’s a venue for its author’s twitchy wordplay. Literary types typically show their skills with lyrical swooning, or with painterly descriptions of everything that passes before their characters’ eyes. Lipsyte, though, prefers stylized, funny dialogue and off-kilter aphorisms. And he draws laughs from the kind of exposition that would be mere narrative pollyfiller to most writers: “Home from the garland, I found the latest issue of Catamount Notes in my mail slot, got myself nooked up on the sofa for a visit with my cougar kin. Some alums had acquired new coordinates of toil on the corporate slave grid. Others were celebrating the advent of poop-smeared approximations of themselves.”

As that passage indicates, Lipsyte’s style does run the risk of being overly glib. Home Land’s wry tone of emotional vacancy is certainly preferable to woe-is-me victimhood, but it does tend to keep the stakes small as the story moves to its climax (which is, inevitably, an Eastern Valley High class reunion). When Gary’s horrific relationship with his parents is rendered at the same insouciant pitch as, say, Lewis’s idle lust for a barista, it’s hard to genuinely care about either – or, indeed, anything. The novel’s resolution, which sees Lewis’s smirking and mugging burned away by raw and painful feeling, is a powerful moment, but a small victory.

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