Milo Burke, a development officer at a third-tier university, has "not been developing": after a run-in with a well--connected undergrad, he finds himself among the burgeoning class of the newly unemployed. Grasping after odd jobs to support his wife and child, Milo is offered one last chance by his former employer: he must reel in a potential donor--a major "ask"--who, mysteriously, has requested Milo's involvement. But it turns out that the ask is Milo's sinister college classmate Purdy Stuart. And the "give" won't come cheap.
Probing many themes--or, perhaps, anxieties--including work, war, sex, class, child rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, and the eroticization of chicken wire, The Ask is a burst of genius by a young American master who has already demonstrated that the truly provocative and important fictions are often the funniest ones.
How is it that Sam Lipsyte has not killed himself? This is a writer whose deeply intelligent sense of black comedy is a direct descendant from the bitter wellsprings of David Foster Wallace and John Kennedy Toole, except firmly anchored in realism. Like an extended outtake from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men or A Confederacy of Dunces that substitutes the corporate end of academia for New Orleans, Lipsyte’s third novel is destined to delight in a way his previous two books did not. In fairness to Lipsyte, probably his initially bright career trajectory was cut short by the fact that his first book was released on 9/11, so reviewers had other things to think about. But it is precisely his experience with this type of tragic coincidence that informs the lives of his characters so well.
Lipsyte’s double-duty as narrator for his book leaves us doubly blessed. Told from the perspective of Milo Burke, a finder of funding at a mediocre school in New York, Lipsyte’s uncanny ear for dialogue really shines as Milo tries to remain respectably under the radar of a militaristic dean, sufficiently snooty in the company of an ideas tycoon with whom he went to art school, convincingly authoritative under the scrutiny of his toddler of terror, and attentively supportive to his cheating wife. Once upon a time, Milo was going to be a successful painter. But Milo is now basically an over-educated drone just trying to eke out a mildly respectable and not-too-schmucky sustainable life for himself and his crumbling family. His comparatively big break comes when an old acquaintance is interested in making a hefty donation to Milo’s school. If Milo can make it happen, he’ll be a hero. But Milo is not good at making things happen, or at being a hero. He is, at best, a wonderful loser.
The cadences of the assorted conversations going on in this book are so absolutely real that you’ll wonder if Lipsyte has been spying on you. He perfectly captures the despairing dialogue between a parent about to crack and a child who oscillates between naive violence, ceaseless rhetorical questioning, and practical selfishness. These traits are interestingly mirrored in the witty back and forths between Milo and Don. Don is the secret love child of Milo’s old acquaintance, and keeping Don happily under wraps is what Milo will have to do in exchange for securing his big donation. But Don is an unhappy smack junkie who lost both legs in Iraq, and he is not too interested in daddy’s hush money.
Lipsyte does not deliver a happy ending for anyone, because happy endings do not reflect reality, but he does deliver a satisfyingly solid treatise on the joyous, mysterious failure that is our maddeningly complex pursuit of staying alive. Lipsyte as author is no holds barred, but Lipsyte as narrator voices not one depressing note. You will want to cry, but you will laugh instead and hope that Sam Lipsyte lives long enough to deliver many more works of such profoundly true meditations on our frail modern life. Megan Volpert
"Lipsyte's pitch-black comedy takes aim at marriage, work, parenting, abject failure (the author's signature soapbox) and a host of subjects you haven't figured out how to feel bad about yet." (Publishers Weekly)
"The kind of book that gets passed around, underlined, dog-eared . . . It makes one laugh out loud while pondering all the ways in which all lives, invariably, go wrong." (Esquire)
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Black black stuff
- Michele Kellett