Book Review

Dark comedy and dispirited light

By Carlo Wolff
March 10, 2010

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Sam Lipsyte’s way with words is exceptional, his ability to turn a phrase dazzling. But in his novel “The Ask,’’ he occasionally undercuts the gravity of his topics - including family dysfunction, an economy in decline, and the futility of academia - with cleverness, keeping a very good novel from being a great one and making the book sometimes frustrating to read. Still, it is powerful and certainly speaks to our times.

“The Ask’’ stars Milo Burke, a failed painter attempting to support his family by way of spotty employment at what Milo calls Mediocre University in Manhattan. As a staff member in a department that raises funds for the school, Milo works for an ex-Marine nicknamed War Crimes and is fired when he makes inappropriate remarks to the daughter of a major donor.

A wealthy old friend, Purdy Stuart, reels him back in when he offers Mediocre a substantial “give’’ if Milo helps him reconnect with his estranged son, the crippled Iraq veteran Don Charboneau. This turns out to be a Faustian bargain.

In Lipsyte’s jaundiced view, the one fallback is family, and family isn’t quite enough when the social and economic structure seems to be crumbling. That’s particularly unsettling for a middle-aged professional like Milo with high salary demands, a modest skill set, and nowhere to go.

Lipsyte shines similarly dispirited light on higher education, a game “poised for a gargantuan fall,’’ reality TV (the idea of “Dead Man Dining,’’ a show designed to spotlight chefs cooking memorable last meals on death row, is inspired), and friendship. Imagination isn’t lacking in this fevered book. Neither is humor, though of the blackest sort.

But affection is scant. It centers on Milo’s relation to his son, Bernie. Take this sentence, a marvel of rhythmic punctuation:

“About twenty-seven percent of the things he said and did made you want to scream and banish him to his childproofed room, or do much more heinous and ingenious things, just so he’d get the point, whatever the point could be with an almost-four-year-old, but still, to bury him alive and then save him at the last minute, or tell him that the state had passed a law against ice cream and he would go to prison if he even thought about it, because they now had the technology to detect illegal mint chocolate chip cogitation, had, in fact, the chips for it, seemed, if not conducive to his development, at least on some level deserved.’’

Lipsyte etches characters deftly, but outside of Milo, his wife Maura, and their son, they are often less flesh than symbol. Lipsyte’s is a world short on meaning in which Purdy’s junkie son Don calls the stumps that were his legs “girls.’’ It’s a world so stingy with private space, paranoia seems the only response available. It is a far cry from the world of an earlier Milo, the bureaucratic operator who drives the business in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, “Catch 22.’’ Like Heller’s Milo Minderbinder, Lipsyte’s Milo uses humor to cope. Unlike his antecedent, however, he can’t run his world.

A largely compelling portrayal of psychological cul-de-sacs, “The Ask’’ ends on an ambivalent note, an open-ended one. Milo Burke survives - “Late capitalism is a corpse, but you could still get lucky, couldn’t you?’’ he opines - even as his world continues to crash.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

THE ASK By Sam Lipsyte

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $25