A hilarious collection of stories from the writer The New York Times called “the novelist of his generation”
Returning to the form in which he began, Sam Lipsyte, author of the New York Times bestseller The Ask, offers up The Fun Parts, a book of bold, hilarious, and deeply felt fiction. A boy eats his way to self-discovery while another must battle the reality-brandishing monster preying on his fantasy realm. Meanwhile, an aerobics instructor, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, makes the most shocking leap imaginable to save her soul. These are just a few of the stories, some first published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Playboy, that unfold in Lipsyte’s richly imagined world.
Other tales feature a grizzled and possibly deranged male birth 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. Combining both the tragicomic dazzle of his beloved novels and the compressed vitality of his classic debut collection, The Fun Parts is Lipsyte at his best—an exploration of new voices and vistas from a writer Time magazine has said “everyone should read.”
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Sam Lipsyte is the author of Venus Drive, The Subject Steve, Home Land, and The Ask, the latter two New York Times Notable Books, and, most recently, The Fun Parts. He won the first annual Believer Book Award and was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow. He teaches writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
the CLIMBER ROOM
The sign in the Sweet Apple kitchen declared it a nut-free zone, and every September somebody, almost always a dad, cracked the usual stupid joke. The gag, Laura, the school director, told Tovah, would either mock the school’s concern for potentially lethal legumes or else suggest that despite the sign’s assurance, not everyone at Sweet Apple could boast of sanity.
Today, as Tovah leaned into the fridge to adjust the lunch bag heap, a skinny gray-haired man in a polo shirt, old enough to be the grandfather of the girl who called him “Papa” as he nudged her toward the cubbies, winked at Tovah, pointed to the sign.
Here it came, the annual benediction.
“Nut free!” Papa said. “Oh, no! Guess I’d better scram!”
He looked at Tovah as though expecting some response, but what? Tolerant smile? Snappy retort? Hand job? These older fathers with their second, “doing-it-right-this-time” families were the worst. This version stuck out a large, knuckly hand that seemed locked in a contest for supremacy with his heavy platinum watch.
“Randy Goat,” the man said.
Tovah figured she had misheard.
“Tovah Gold,” she said, and shook his hand, or, rather, a few of his supple fingers.
“And this is Dezzy.”
“Dezzy!” Tovah said, recognized the girl now. She sank to a knee, which was not only the proper way to address children but a nifty evasive maneuver vis-à-vis their crypto-creepy progenitors. “Hi, Dezzy. Do you remember me? I tagged along with Laura on the home visit a few weeks ago. You showed me your new sparkly shoes.”
“Sparkle shoes,” said Dezzy.
“Sparkle, of course.”
“Right,” Randy said. “I was out of town when you guys popped by.”
The place had been enormous, dizzying, a living (well, not quite living) embodiment (not embodiment, precisely) of the aspirational sconce porn that Tovah sometimes indulged in online or at magazine racks.
“We met your wife,” Tovah said. “She was so nice.”
Tovah still blanked on the family name. She was stuck with Goat.
“I remember with my older children,” the man said. “You guys like to do a little recon. Find out if we keep our kids in filth while we boost skag all day. But I guess we passed. We good, God-fearin’ folks, I swears.”
Tovah stared at him, unsure of Laura’s preferred reply to such a performance. She was new to the pre-K world, and just part-time, temporary. Tovah had been an administrative coordinator at an East Side prep school for years, until the school brought back the retired headmaster to replace her. The crash had made crumb snatchers of the toniest. The headmaster had run the school. Now he ran the office, and Tovah, at home, ran a lot of hot water for non-revitalizing soaks. The offer from Sweet Apple, managed through a distant family friend, had saved her.
“Sorry to shock you,” Randy Goat said now. “Just funnin’.”
“You didn’t shock me,” said Tovah, though the word “skag,” the old-timey TV creak of it, intrigued her.
“A tightass,” Randy Goat said. “Good. It means you’ll be careful with my kid.”
Now other children tore past, monogrammed backpacks jouncing. Laura jogged up in an outfit she’d recently described as “business yoga casual.”
“Mr. Gautier,” she said. “Wonderful.”
“You know to call me Randy, Laura. You look radiant. You must have bloomed with love this summer.”
Laura blushed. “Not quite.”
“Just a fling? Sounds fun.”
Tovah pictured another universe where, without hesitation, she could slap Randy Gautier’s smug, maybe once sensual old-man mouth. Laura was annoying, but she didn’t deserve this spinster baiting, especially from a geezer. Tovah wasn’t that far from cat ladyhood herself, though she believed—had staked her life on the belief—that everything always changed at the last minute. The right man, or even woman (what did it matter, really?), would just appear and, for goddamn certain, the right baby. Which meant any baby, within reason. Race or gender didn’t matter, but spine on the inside would be nice. Now an unknown force, perhaps the man’s shimmering wrist piece, whipped her back through conjectured space-time, far from the cool, lavender room where she cradled her perfect newborn. She stood with her hand on Desdemona Gautier’s silky skull while the girl’s father bent down to address her.
“It’s going to be a great day, sweetie. The first of many great days. Just do whatever Laura and Tovah tell you.”
The Goat Man winked at Tovah again.
Tovah treated him to the smile she once bestowed upon the creative writing professor who told her that some people were meant to write poetry and others, like Tovah, to treasure it.
She’d proved that incontinent toad wrong, for a few years, anyway.
* * *
Tovah’s D’Agostino’s card wouldn’t beep her the rebate. She feigned a pressing appointment, offered to pay full price for her crackers and sodium-free vegetable broth. The woman at the register looked at Tovah as though she’d chucked a diamond brooch into the Hudson.
“I can just swipe for you,” she said, slid an extra card from beneath the cash drawer.
“Save it for somebody worthy,” Tovah said.
“Hey,” the woman said. “We need the wood.”
“You didn’t die for my sins, lady. So don’t go building a cross for yourself. We need the wood.”
Tovah gave a feral grin. By midnight tonight, fueled by soup and crackers, she would have her first verse in years.
“Thank you,” Tovah said. “You don’t even know.”
“I know you need crazy bitch pills,” the woman muttered, but Tovah, lost in private, triumphal noise, did not catch it.
* * *
By midnight Tovah lay on the couch with a stomachache. A miniature swordsman flensed her gut with his foil, or so went an intriguing image that had come to her as she puked up the crackers, the soup, and the Chinese entrées she’d ordered after the crackers ran out. She never ate like this. She kept her slim figure with a subsistence diet of iced espressos, store-cut cheese cubes, and a few dry salads a day. But she remembered that back when she really wrote poetry, she ate a lot of greasy food, with no gastric regret. The extra weight had just made her voluptuous. She’d been so young.
Now she was thirty-six and in one eating spree had become a vile sack of fat and rot. In her vision of herself she was not even obese, but more like a bloated carcass gaffed from a lake. There on the couch, her belly flopped over her jeans, the new chin she’d acquired in about five hours damp and rashy, rank scents curled from her pores and, especially, from her crotch, whenever she tugged at her waistband to ease the ache. It was all so awful, evil, so unlike the Tovah of recent years, of modified appetites and reduced expectations, that her corpse-body surged with something revoltingly, smearishly pleasing. She felt slimy, garbage-juice sexy. Her hand jerked inside her underwear for relief. She pictured the actual gaffer leaning over the gunwale: rugged, with kind, lustful eyes under a brocaded cap. Sparkle eyes. Tovah’s legal pad, upon which she’d written only the title of her poem, “Needing the Wood,” slid to the carpet. Her fountain pen, caught against an embroidered yellow pillow, impaled it.
Morning light woke her, but Tovah’s half-closed eyes bent the rays back into a dream about a sun-stabbed land of which Tovah was philosopher-queen. She could retain her crown only by mastering a vintage pinball machine set atop an onyx plinth. The flippers stuck, and the holes were the mouths of female poets. A silver ball plopped into the maw of Dickinson. A voice in the head of her dreamself told Tovah not to “skin lip.”
She woke again, rose from the couch, saw the stained cartons of kung pao chicken, sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, and mystery moo shoo. She retched. She took a shower and made gunpowder tea and sat on the toilet and sighed. She had a date tonight.
It would be odd to see Sean again. Her best friend in college, Callie, had a brother, and everyone had agreed that this lean black-haired wonder was bound for an extraordinary life. Sean might direct a morally resonant movie, or design a marvelous bridge, or climb a heretofore unscalable mountain both to prove his prowess and deliver medicine to a snowed-in camp on the far slope. He had a keen mind, a daredevil physicality, a conscience. You could picture him leading large, semi-whimsical social movements.
At his sister’s party during one Christmas break years before, Sean’s graciousness, even more than his charisma, had undone Tovah. Sean made the rounds, checked on everybody’s drinks, lavished his attentions on the shy. When he walked up and handed Tovah a daiquiri and they spoke for a few moments about turtles, or tortoises of great size and longevity, Tovah felt something magical and formfitting slip over her: a tunic of light. This was the way Jesus must have worked, some petty wonder talk while revelation sunk its celestial needle. An artificial insemination of the soul. Soon Sean drifted away, perhaps to knock up other guests.
Tovah never saw him again and thought about him constantly. She waited for word of his victories. Callie nourished her with stories about new jobs and cities, so that Sean became a character in some corny but secretly enthralling serial adventure. He worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, wrote experimental screenplays in Gobi desert yurts, enrolled in architecture school, film school, medical school (but only for research, with no intention of doctoring). He had undertaken a scientifically significant balloon journey. But after a while the stories got hazy. Callie said something about a junk habit.
Tovah wondered if Sean was the type who peaked just before setting off into the world, the boy the gang bets on before they understand life. A sad notion, but she still wanted to see him. He’d reached out to her through several friends (not Callie, though, who’d broken with Tovah over a misunderstanding about the location of a brunch spot). Sean’s contact was not random, but certainly sudden.
His interest surprised her. People had eased away from Tovah. She had become a tad too prickly, or self-sufficient. Maybe her empathy seemed strained. Unfair, this last, as she really felt for others, and with them, but it never quite came across. That’s what creative writing was for. She knew better, from so many workshops, than to suggest that poetry existed to express one’s feelings, though infuriatingly, hers did.
A baby, however, especially a baby bred to be lean and coal haired and jade eyed and slant smiled, like Sean, could learn to express Tovah’s feelings, too, without the torture of words.
* * *
Out on Broadway, Tovah stepped into a hat boutique, the kind of sparse, dusty affair you assume would be a depression’s first prey, but here it stood. Tovah hated hats, or could never conceive of a hat that would suit her, except maybe a floppy straw thing she could wear to the beach with sunglasses and coquettishly unflattering sandals. She’d lug along books in a canvas bag, but when would she get to the beach? She lived on an island, sure, but that didn’t mean she numbered among those permitted to go to the beach.
“Can I help you?” said the salesgirl.
She seemed, but didn’t look, fifteen.
“Who comes in here?” Tovah asked.
“People looking for hats.”
“That is twisted.”
Tovah felt funny. Maybe she hadn’t really bounced back from last night’s death feast.
Maybe what she’d been on the couch was pregnant, though only ignorance could make it true. You could reckon the dates, track the cycles, but then certain facts press down. You couldn’t be pregnant if you hadn’t been laid in three years. A devout Catholic could still hope, but not Tovah. She’d never even considered herself the maternal type. She didn’t believe there was such a temperament, unless one assembled it in the culture factory along with images of women as radiant white creatures traipsing through summer fields with their tanned, though still white, spawn.
Those were the old lies. The newer ones claimed that all committed mothers could also manage begemmed careers, that only the weak or untalented had to choose. But even the mothers at Sweet Apple, not to mention her former school, could not disguise their struggle. Instead they sought catharsis in their comic monologues about the slog, or the sick joke of being marked as both mediocre mothers and lousy colleagues.
Some mothers at Sweet Apple had gleaned an even greater shift: the shame in procreation. People glared at families, at mothers. Nobody got up for pregnant women on the subway anymore. The planet couldn’t sustain more mouths. So stand, greedy lady.
Tovah had picked her side years before. No peace-shredding hominid would find shelter in her womb. She loved to play with the pre-K kids, but live with one? Then something embarrassing and maybe purely chemical occurred. She wanted a baby. That was all. She still believed everything she believed, cultivated privacy and solitude, and, despite her attachment to the Sweet Apple tykes, believed childlessness the noble course (yes, your kid might cure cancer, but probably he’d grow up to play video games or, if the world followed its current path, huddle in a gulch slurping gulchwater and recalling the magnificence of video games). But she wanted a baby. That’s what her body was for, in the cruel scheme of things, and she craved the bleakness of biology. It didn’t matter if the baby was hers, except it absolutely did. She wanted to carry it and give birth to it and breast-feed it and live in a natural cocoon with it for as long as possible, with somebody on the outside slipping everything she needed through a slim vent. In this way life would be joyful instead of nearly unlivable. The part of her that she’d always trusted knew this was crazy, but that part had also, one had to admit, led her to this grim limbo.
Tovah started across the street for a cleansing smoothie. Somebody shouted her name. Mr. Gautier strode toward her. He had a sharp-boned swagger and wore a hat, a baseball cap, stitched with the words GLYPH SYSTEMS.
“Mr. Gautier,” she called.
“Hello,” Tovah said.
Mr. Gautier put a hand on Tovah’s shoulder, took a few hard breaths. He dipped his head and spat something pebble sized onto the pavement. Tovah noticed the tiny hearing aid that lurked behind a shrub of ear hair.
“You played hooky today,” he said.
“It was a day off. I’m only part-time.”
“Did you hear what happened over there?”
She could picture only worst-case scenarios. Fires, floods, a collapsed ceiling in the lunch nook, a child pincered in that window sash the caretaker still hadn’t fixed. Or maybe Laura had finally snapped, kicked one of what she liked to call the Future Date Rapists of America in the skull. Boys, Laura had told her, were bad for schools, bad for society.
Which wasn’t to say, Laura added, that she didn’t love the cuties to death.
“Dezzy was in the climber room,” Mr. Gautier said, “and she fell off the … whatever it is.”
“The climber,” Mr. Gautier said. “They could just say jungle gym. What’s the big diff?”
“Is Dezzy okay?” Tovah asked. “Those pads on the floor are pretty soft.”
“She’s fine. That’s not the point. She freaked out, and she cried for you. I’m convinced she feels more comfortable and confident with you around.”
“That’s sweet. She’s so delicious. Really.”
Tovah had heard other teachers use “delicious” this way. It seemed natural, but also strange, whi...
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