It just doesn't seem fair. New York writer Sam Lipsyte has now written two novels that should be modern classics, and yet he's barely known. The Subject Steve was a surprising story of a guy apparently dying of boredom while vainly searching for the meaning of life (it had the misfortune of being published on Sept. 11, 2001). His latest, Home Land, is a scathing monument to Lewis "Teabag" Miner, an underachiever whose updates for his high-school alumni newsletter are regularly censored.
Home Land reads like a compendium of these updates-embarrassingly personal, grammatically sensational and writhing with brilliantly dark insight. Teabag is a misanthrope who writes "FakeFacts" for a soft-drink company and trolls the web for ladies in legwarmers. His best friend is a drug dabbler who lives off lawsuit money from a shrink who once convinced him his parents molested him as a child. The supporting alumni cast-an untalented rock star, a famous baseball player and a kinky ex-principal-combine to illustrate what is at the heart of Lipsyte's work: sad, dysfunctional American life (which may explain why it was first published in the U.K.).
"The book was shopped around as the U.S. was gearing up for Iraq, so publishers were a bit hesitant to take it on," Lipsyte told WW. "It was rejected by 24 American publishers, although many of the editors at those houses loved the novel. The people they answered to were-how can I put this delicately?-greedy, craven lizard-fuckers." Thankfully, after good reviews in England, it's finally published here.
Lipsyte's sentences are built like deadly missiles. He starts his last chapter with this warning: "Once more I stuff my heart into the firing tube of language, loft it into the void. See the wet meat soar?"
The tone of the narration sometimes recalls Wes Anderson's film Rushmore. "I think it could probably be a movie," says Lipsyte, "But you'd have to replace the engine of this novel-language-with something else, something, well, cinematic. Translating antic interiority is always tough. A producer recently called me to feel me out on this stuff. I think I accidentally talked him out of wanting to do it. My last novel was optioned by some guy in Hollywood a while ago. I haven't heard shit about it since. I'm just waiting until the day I'm sitting in the movies eating my popcorn and the trailer comes on: 'Antonio Banderas is...The Subject Steve.'"
Before his two novels, Lipsyte penned an impressive collection of short stories called Venus Drive. Even there, his characters said and did things that other writers wouldn't dare put to the page. There's an authentic despair in his work that makes for uncomfortable reading at times. "You can't escape a certain amount of autobiography, but it's emotional autobiography," Lipsyte reveals. "I constantly steal from my life and the lives of my friends. I don't really have what people call an imagination. Except for Lewis' legwarmer thing. I imagined that."
By Sam Lipsyte (Picador, 240 pages, $13)
Lipsyte reads from Home Land at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 1. Free
See Bibliofiles, page 57, for a review of the novel.