THE SHORT STORY is having a moment.
The hottest-ticket writers to roll through town lately have been peddling story collections: There was George Saunders' satirical masterpiece Tenth of December; and then We Live in Water, collecting Jess Walter's grimily beautiful little stories of life on the margins of the Pacific Northwest. On some unwatered strip of grass between Walter and Saunders, there sits a sun-bleached lawn chair with a warm PBR in the drink-holder—this is where Sam Lipsyte has staked out his territory. More grounded than Saunders, funnier and more voice-driven than Walter, the stories in Lipsyte's The Fun Parts catalog self-delusion, failure, and Dungeons & Dragons.
The fun of these stories is less about plot or characters than the juxtaposition of Lipsyte's darkly hilarious worldview with some of the most carefully crafted prose being written today. Lipsyte writes excellent sentences, and they are tuned most frequently to acerbic comedy, with occasional jolts of pure, unexpected poetry. Exhibits A, B, and C:
A junkie whose father was a sportswriter decides to write his own book about sports: "Probably it's like when your father is president. You think, If that fuck could do it..."
A story's character begins to chafe at his own textual constraints: "Exactly whose colostomy bag must I tongue wash to escape this edgy voice-driven narrative?"
An ex-junkie pursues new highs through exercise: "Her friends, the endorphins. She wanted to leap off a boat and swim with them."
Lipsyte's skill is particularly apparent in his deployment of odd sexual euphemisms: "frig," for example. Does anyone use "frig" as a verb outside of Sam Lipsyte stories? At one point, a high-school coach chides his team to stop thinking about Mindy Richter's "snapperhole" and focus on the game. These goofy word choices aren't a sign that Lipsyte is tragically out of touch with the sexings of today's youth—they instead serve to add a little frisson of embarrassment, of what-did-he-just-say discomfort and mirth. You know, like when we were kids, before we were all sex-positive and dabbling in polyamory; back when sex was weird, and funny, and strange.
The Fun Parts isn't Lipsyte's best work—that, for my money, is 2010's novel The Ask, which satirized office culture, academia, and the generally tattered state of the American dream. In The Ask, Lipsyte created a character and sustained a voice that were such a hilarious pleasure to spend time with that the high-wire plot was almost incidental. In The Fun Parts, there are a lot more plots to contend with, and a lot more characters demanding our sympathy, and some work better than others. Still, though, it's a solid offering from one of the funniest and most skillful prose stylists writing today.