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Book Reviews

Home Land

By Sam Lipsyte


Picador USA, reviewed in New York Magazine

Slacker narrators have never been the most appealing literary subgroup. Sad sacks by definition, sluggish by inclination, these goopy self-obsessives display little moral complexity and even less wit. Lewis “Teabag” Miner, the wiggy epistolary narrator of Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, Home Land, is the exception who proves the rule—indeed, with any luck, he could be the one to retire it, and make aimless American middle-aged men respectable literary figures once more.

On the face of things, Teabag is cut very much from slacker cloth: a self-described “also-ran” bogged down in his fictional Jersey hometown with no fixed income and precious few life prospects. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s also a champion masturbator, a “fattish man with severe groin strain” who has set a personal best of fondling himself to fruition eleven times in one day. But, hey, it’s not like that’s the only thing he does to kill time. He also quaffs carbonated tequila, visits malls to smell “the scent of mallness” (“the scent of scents canceling each other out”), conducts “perv recon” on sundry body parts of various women, particularly on their leg warmers, about which it is safe to say he has a “thing.” He hangs with his stoner bud who made millions suing his parents on a recovered-memory charge of sexual abuse, periodically puts himself on strict fitness regimes (“five push-ups, five sit-ups, no excuses”), and watches boring old movies on the Boring Old Movie Channel, “the kind with men in suits and women in veiled hats and nobody trusting each other much.”

Mostly he deals with “the terrible silence under all the jabbering of the world” by posting comically unpublishable “outlaw rants” to his high-school alumni bulletin, not only updating the putatively more-successful members of the Class of ’89 on his onanism, but also struggling to make sense of a sleaze-obsessed culture and his place in it. This rolling all-purpose confessional causes him to be stalked by the edgiest school principal ever to grace the pages of an American novel, the basement-dwelling Fontana, sneering in the shadow of his sweatshirt hood, who diagnoses our hero thusly: “You don’t really fit into any category. You’re pretty bright but no student. . . . You think you’d like to be some kind of artist but you have no idea what that means, and you’re afraid you’re too dumb, which could be true.”

The upshot is that what seems at first to be yet another in a long line of contemporary self-pitying narrators, a la the central schnooks in Matthew Klam’s “Sam the Cat” or Steve Almond’s “My Life In Heavy Metal,” turns out to be someone surprisingly fresh and angst-free. Is Teabag dissatisfied with being his own sex slave, exercising his right to self-love in such a high-handed, as it were, manner? On the contrary. Snidely jubilant, he confesses that he is “quite happy in my unhappy way.” He beds an actual person from time to time, rising to something tentatively related to love, or maturity, or at least a life predicated on something other than chronic self-abuse. What sets Teabag bracingly apart from his literary predecessors – in addition to his refusal to armor himself with de rigeur all-purpose irony – is that he +believes+ in the “schemed deliriums” he concocts to snap his losing streak.  He even learns from his excesses: “My misadventures have taught me to covet the little things, to cherish, in short, the short straw.”

Admittedly, some readers might find the novel’s humor a tad dark. A house key is kept in the dessicated mouth of a dead chipmunk. (“Who needs those foam rocks?”) The contempt Teabag cultivates for his better-heeled classmates tilts a bit uncomfortably toward fantasies of Columbine-like carnage. Still, for a pace this frantic, few of the fireworks are duds. Advance blurbs liken Teabag to Holden Caulfield, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, even Leon Trotsky. Whom do I see, peering through the roasted smoke of spent reefers and sausage vodka fumes? I see shades of William Burroughs, if he’d had a better sense of humor. I see Walt Whitman, as played by Jack Black. I see J. P. Donleavy, if he hadn’t succumbed to those stupid simpering puns of his, Joyce Cary if he’d hung out in the hipper reaches of Astoria, a horny Gen-X Ralph Waldo Emerson, if he were “gooned on Sambuca,” as Lipsyte likes to say, or had been sucking on a “truth bazooka” (bong). Smarts like these are transcendental, man. Here’s hoping a new generation of slackers-manqué takes note.

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