The Cruelty of Cool

As a kid, he ordered the Unhappy Meal: Sam Lipsyte

Hipsters, Sam Lipsyte understands, suffer as much doubt and self-deception as the square next door. They just sneer more confidently. In the 13 pared-to-the-bone tales of misdirection and hilarious anomie that make up Venus Drive (Open City Books), Lipsyte nails the confusions of the terminally cool as they sidestep between downtown chic and the Silicon Alley boom. Emptied of anything that might resemble charity, his taut prose offers only penlight flashes of understanding. (When onetime alternaheroes run into former fans in the elevator, do they retreat, shake hands, or stare at the wall?) Juvenile Attitude is a temporary state of being, Lipsyte suggests, and he commiserates by hinting that something more has to see you through the next
50 years.

Even worse, in Lipsyte's world, all the old sureties (art/commerce, hip/square) have collapsed, forcing one to admit just how many choices it takes to fill out a life. "Evil's not one thing. They didn't teach us the gradients," realizes a drug dealer in one story. If spurning material success was a meaningful gesture when riches beckoned, Lipsyte wonders, how do you create meaning when the only things on offer are addiction and shabby need? After one character's confrontational art-punk band tanks, he recognizes that the bell can toll for him, too: "When the spiteful alcoholics turn their backs, it's time to call it a nice postcollege try."

In plotting the slow lapse of alternaculture into the conventional, Lipsyte memorizes the attendant declensions of irony: These people laugh to keep from resorting to the gestures (mourning, collapse, etc.) expected of them. Though the author's money shot is the dutiful son shooting up with his mother's cremains, "setting beautiful fires up and down my spine" for that last taste of family togetherness, Lipsyte has less lurid jokes in his arsenal. "That summer we used to get stroke books to stroke ourselves with at bedtime," reads this book's single funniest sentence.

His tone and subject matter recall recent druggie classics like Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Rick Moody's Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, but Lipsyte's voice is his own, a street-chastened conscience that sits and contemplates more often than it ventures judgment on the myriad ways we contrive to run in place. "You have to keep something between yourself and the truth of yourself or you're dead, was how I figured it," one of his interchangeable narrators' remarks. Even when they uncover escape hatches, his characters choose not to walk through them; they would rather rot in place than take the trouble to respond to something new. "We both know the weak secrets of us," admits one failed revolutionary of his conspirator in Trotskyism.

Like almost every writer born in the Sixties or after, Lipsyte feels intuitive comfort with self-chosen failure. He inhabits minds ranging from immature (fuddled preteens doing their best to grasp the complications of mortality) to deliberately underused (druggy slackers marking time at the corner dot-com), yet every one of his characters has misplaced normality's instruction manual. The best this author can offer his creations is a minuscule dose of hope: In the final story, the narrator relishes his membership in a ragtag collaboration of smokers that facetiously plots revolution on breaks, even as he recalls the cancer that killed his mother.

He will change, he resolves, he will quit--but instead he switches to low tar, enticed by the fantasies it sells even as it clouds his lungs just a bit less efficiently. That ain't much, but it's all these characters can feel satisfied with, and all they want.

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