by Sam Lipsyte
(Open City Books)
"We are always shushing for in case the Old Lady puts her high holy ear to the keyhole."
Come across a sentence like this--naivete displayed through sculpted, intentionally poor, though satisfying, grammar--and you can bet the writer crossed paths with Gordon Lish, directly or indirectly, early in the struggle to get published. It's no surprise to see Sam Lipsyte thank Gordon Lish first on the back page of Venus Drive.
"Now he's sore arms, sore neck from hauling all the Liquor Board crates, sore everything every night, aching, waiting for his salt bath, wanting to know from us which of us needs Rachel. Now he shushes up for in case the Old Lady will hear."
These bleak stories work a simple recipe of meaningless sex, drugs, and a death wish with a shifting, recurring cast. The first, "Old Soul," is the least subtle, bringing paid-for sex and incest bordering on necrophilia alongside a sister's unexplained, wasting disease and the narrator's pointless existence. "You could touch for a couple of bucks," the story starts. Nude dancers, prostitutes, drug addicted women who say, "I should probably blow you,"--standard signs identifying the narrator, and the author, as having insider knowledge into a dark, secret world. In truth though, this world of cheap sex, drinking, drugs, and inanity is unfortunately overly accessible, overly populated, and not much of a secret at all.
The second story follows the callousness of the first; the narrator toys with the idea of mercy killing. The writer is out to earn a tough-guy badge and he earns it, creating cold, unsympathetic characters at the expense of a more complex exploration of humanity.
For the most part, it reads as show and posturing. It's hard to sell a first story collection, and hard to distinguish oneself from all the other clamoring new authors. Sam Lipsyte wants to be recognized as a bad ass. He's following in the wake of Fante, Bukowski and Johnson, each one dropping the softer elements of the one before in an effort to break new ground.
But in between efforts at shock value, there are sentences in Venus Drive that offer a glimpse of more ordinary humanity. In "Probe to the Negative" the narrator says, "Yesterday's thought was how did I get here, thirty-one, thirty-two, just this huge knot of unknowing and losing my hair. Big deal, you say. Male pattern baldness. But that's the thing. There's no pattern to it." For a moment male pattern baldness seems more mysterious and foreboding, indicative of the futility of struggle in the face of time passing, than the certainty of death itself as presented in all the other stories.