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This slim collection of short stories (the first Picador addition, although the collection was first published in 2000) packs a punch. The stories have immediacy and urgency. From page one the reader is dropped into a world of depravity and desperation. The stories are well crafted, and Lipsyte’s attention to language and rhythm is first-rate. Surprising things happen, and the reader feels sufficiently afloat in the endings. And yet something is missing, something essential, something, well….

The first story, entitled “Old Soul” concerns a man who frequents places like “Peep City” and “Peep Town” to cop a feel when he isn’t visiting his dying sister in the hospital. The voice of the narrator, as is often the case in this collection, is honest and unflinching. When commenting on the ambiance at Peep City, the narrator muses: “Why do they make these places so dark? I like to cop tit in the light.” By the second paragraph, we know we are in the hands of a brutally honest narrator, and that whatever is ultimately revealed in the story will not be sentimental or maudlin.

The narrator in this story is, however, not without scruples—wink, wink. When pondering the length the women in these joints will go to for an extra buck, he says, “Sometimes they asked about hand jobs, blowjobs, all the jobs, but I never wanted to go that far. I felt sorry for them. Somebody told me they were exploited. Me, I always paid in full.” He’s a pretty despicable character, an “Old Soul” as the title suggests. And if you’re in the mood for “likable characters”, you’ve got the wrong collection. The rest of the story concerns the narrator—he doesn’t have a name—going to bars, more peep clubs, and finally to visit his dying sister in the hospital. In this short scene, Lipsyte mines into the core of the story, and the language is fresh and alive. When describing his sister in the hospital bed, the narrator observes: “Ventilator, feeding tube, they had everything in her to keep her from going anywhere.” The story takes a glorious turn when the narrator slips his hands under the gurney covers and knuckle-fucks his sister, paralleling an earlier scene in Peep Town. The moment, while shocking and perverse, seems to fit with the overall tone of the story, and is perhaps the only parting gift this narrator can offer his sister before she dies. In a sense, it’s a short masterpiece.

The other stories range from childhood ruminations to adolescent rites-of-passages to adult burn-outs, who have, for all intents and purposes, lost their last chance at redemption. Certainly, the one thing these stories all have in common is an acuteness of language. Many of the lines are vibrant and penetrating—my annotated copy was graffitied with check marks and exclamation points— and regardless of the context, stop and make the reader think, or just appreciate, their beauty and insight. In “I’m Slavering”, a story about a young man looking for Gary, his drug-dealer/mentor, the narrator says of him, “Once he sawed off his thumb and gave it to his mother on a breakfast tray, he was in the free and clear. Who would ever bother a boy like that again? Who would tell him when to go to bed? This is what I mean by wisdom.” I found myself, as I read, revisiting sections like this over and over again for the crystallization of language and thought.

And so…what’s the missing piece? Why did the collection, in the end, leave me cold? What the collection lacks, in my humble opinion, is follow-through. At the end of most of these stories, I felt let-down. And I suppose it’s not surprising when you look at the acknowledgement page to find Gordon Lish’s name there. Lish was Raymond Carver’s editor for a time, and it’s purported that he cut many of Carver’s stories in half. Lipsyte’s stories seem to have a Lish’s fingerprints all over them. When minimalism is working at its best, stories tend to open-up and suggest more than the words on the page (as Carver’s do). When it is not working, stories tend to feel stilted and choppy, anemic almost. More of the stories in this collection fall into the latter category, unfortunately, and despite the beauty of the imagery and language throughout, the reader is often left asking : “So what?”

Still, it’s a collection that’s worthy of a read, especially if you appreciate the aesthetic possibilities of the well crafted sentence.

Contributor: Dennis Fulgoni, B.A., M.F.A.

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