Sam Lipsyte’s new book The Ask
is a riotous, devilish look at a middle-aged slacker trying to pull his life back together. Clearly, we loved it, and while interviewing him, sheepishly (and nerdily) quoted Lolita to describe his prose style: we told him it’s like reading a “lavish epileptic fit.” How else can you describe language that manages to be nasty, hilarious, and tender all at once — and often in exuberant bursts? That’s what we thought.
The novel also transmits a very strong sense of place, so this past weekend, Sam agreed to take us on a walking tour of his old neighborhood in Astoria (he now teaches at Columbia and lives on the Upper West Side), which functions as the setting for much of the book, and the place in which Milo (the aforementioned slacker) lives. Discussed on the way: Hitler-loving Czechs, Mary Karr, awkward sex, Barry Hannah, the hostile takeover of land by the “me’s,” Ben Marcus, epic beer gardens, unironic hipsters, Padgett Powell, ways to make money in the park, Keith Gessen, pickup football, George Saunders, the boring shit, and Deb Olin Unferth, among other things. Hit the pavement after the jump.
“Home beckoned, but so did a coconut flake.”
We met Sam at Tastee Corner — just off the N train at 30th Avenue — half expecting the novel’s “kiddie-diddler” to be lurking in a corner, picking the scabs off his head and scribbling in a notebook. But it turned out to be a pretty nice place, with shiny countertops and everything. “The evil,” Sam said, “is trapped under the lacquer.” It turns out that the doughnut shop in the book, Milo’s sugary haunt, is a combination of this place and a run-down Dunkin’ Donuts next to the roaring highway. A good thing too — we wanted to hold onto our image of the dirty doughnut dive, complete with pimply teenagers and a view of mud-splattered traffic.
“I’d cure my solipsistic hysteria with a noonday jaunt. Sights and smells. Schoolkids in parochial plaids. Grizzled men grilling meat. The deaf woman handing out flyers for the nail salon, or the other deaf woman with swollen hands and a headscarf who hawked medical thrillers in front of the drugstore.
This was a kind and bountiful neighborhood: the Korean grocery, the Mexican taqueria, the Italian butcher shop, the Albanian café, the Arab newsstand, the Czech beer garden, everybody living in provisional harmony, keeping their hateful thoughts to themselves, except maybe a few of the Czechs.”
Now, the legendary beer gardens of Astoria, of those we’ve heard tale. In nice weather, our friends have more than once tried to cajole us into making the trek to sample beer in the sunshine. We’re thinking this summer is the summer, now that we know where the place is — and now that we can can pull out a bunch of recommendations for good Greek food in the area as suggested by Sam Lipsyte. No big deal.
Sam Lipsyte: Here’s the beer garden. I think there’s a newer one now, but this is the legendary one. The really silly giant medieval door is new too. But it goes all the way back. And it’s filled with benches.
Flavorpill: That is sort of epic.
SL: Yeah it’s really epic. There are like hundreds and hundreds of people — 500, 800, 1000 people in the course of a night. And this [across the street, self-consciously dark inside and outside] is the little hipster bar that gets the spillover.
FP: I don’t think hipsters are allowed to go to beer gardens unironically.
SL: Well when I first moved out here, nobody was in it. You’d go in there and there’d be like ten other people in this huge space, you’d go there and drink beer all night, and the waiters were kind of hostile and Slovakian. But it was fine, everybody was cool. I mean, they didn’t like us but we paid good money to sit there. And then sometimes some other dudes would be there watching Hitler’s speeches on a laptop, at the next table, and there’d be some tension.
FP: They liked them better?
SL: Yeah. Well, they were their buddies.
FP: Oh good.
SL: And then it just got more and more popular. It got discovered
FP:Well it’s sort of an amazing thing.
SL: And now it’s gotta be this incredible money machine. And then there’s a rival one.
FP: More and more young people are moving to Astoria. It’s the next Brooklyn.
SL: I don’t think it can ever get to that, just because of the architecture. But more and more, I think there’s been a huge influx.
FP:We’re all so poor now, that even if there are no bars…
SL: Brooklyn is too expensive now.
FP: Brooklyn is almost as expensive as Manhattan now.
SL: Brooklyn is Manhattan now.
“…there was always a line at the post office, people with enormous packages bound, I assumed, for family in distant, historically fucked lands.”
Sam thought we might get arrested for taking pictures of the post office. We did not.
FP: So you didn’t start this book until you left?
SL: No, I started it while I was here, but I struggled with it. Part of the reason I struggled so much was because I was here.
FP: You needed a wider scope?
SL: No, you just get a tone of place that was before, so my first book had a lot of stories, or at least a few stories that were about New Jersey, and growing up in New Jersey. Homeland is about New Jersey and I hadn’t been back for years, so I could get some sort of fictional handle on it without feeling oppressed by the facts.
FP: The facts are always oppressing.
SL: That’s why I write fiction.
FP: But clearly, I’m sure everyone asks about the autobiographical aspect, because there are so many parallels — working at a college, having a small child in Astoria.
SL: Yeah, I mean I use those things as a starting point I guess, to get myself going. I think I don’t shirk from emotional autobiography. I mean, I stick pretty closely to the feelings. I change a lot of details, just to avoid the court system.
FP: And the abject hatred of your friends and family?
SL: Exactly. To be shunned by all I love.
FP: I guess you could avoid that.
SL: I just thought of that though, because there are all these kind of broken memoirists, who spend all their time trying to say the stuff they made up is true, but then certain fiction writers, I guess including myself, have to spend all their time saying “no it’s not true, I made it up.”
FP: I just read Mary Karr’s memoir in which she says “I think this is probably how it happened more or less, I can’t really remember everything, so just accept it through the lens of my poor memory.”
SL: I think that’s why she’s such a master at it, because she doesn’t claim to remember everything, she just makes — you believe she’s making a good faith effort. That’s all you need.
FP: So few people admit that, when they’re writing memoirs.
SL: As soon as you admit that, you can say anything. Well, you have to be a gifted writer, and she is.
FP: And a personality, which she is.
SL: Right. I was doing a podcast with this friend of mine, this comedian Mark Maron, and he read a little bit on the show, and he said “that’s the thing when you’re reading something by someone you know, a friend of yours, you just picture that person. I just have to keep saying ‘it’s not me, it’s not me.’ Especially since there’s probably awkward sexual scenes.”
FP: And then you have to really swear it’s not you. I mean you do have some pretty awkward sexual scenes.
SL: We all do.
FP: It happens.
SL: It’s happening right now. In Astoria.
FP: Hopefully right here somewhere. But you also manage to describe them particularly awkwardly.
SL: Well, you want to celebrate that awkwardness.
“I…took the shortcut through a playground beneath the tracks. The playground was empty except for a burly man coaxing his daughter down a slide. The sight of them startled me. He looked like a man I’d known on my block, a man who was dead now but who in life boasted the same huge shoulders and shaggy dreadlocks.”
This cut through the park – this park, as it turns out, where Sam also brought his real-life young son when they lived in the area – leads into one of the fascinating sidebars of Milo’s experience that populate the novel. This one, one of the ones that really sticks with you, recalls a man Milo would see in the park, where they would ‘wave, dad to dad’, and maybe talk about ‘the dilapidation of the swings’. But Milo finds out the man’s name only when he dies, and Milo reads about it in the paper – a lesson in both the bigness and smallness of neighborhoods.
“Late, I sprinted through drab, tidy streets toward Christine’s. Her brick two-family was an exact replica of every other house around here, including mine. Much as I feared the advent of the me’s, architecture alone was against it. There weren’t enough lofts of factory floors. Kids needed big, decrepit spaces for their parties and orgies and suicidal Sunday afternoons. The buildings in these precincts had been designed for only one thing: to house, and disguise, the fester of families.”
This carbon-copy of Milo’s (and Christine’s) Astoria two-family is actually Sam’s old house — he lived in the top part of the house with his wife and later their son (he’s five and a half now). The gentrification that Milo hates (while being a part of) is also definitely true-to-life. “I had an uncle,” Sam tells us. “Still do, actually. And he lived in this neighborhood long before I did. He wasn’t from here, he was from Pittsburgh, actually, but he was teaching at a private school in Brooklyn — a math teacher. And he wanted to live out in this neighborhood, it worked for him. I remember I would hang out with him sometimes — he was a trombone player and used to take his trombone out to the park down there and play, try to make some extra money. But he said to me once, he decided to move out, and he said ‘yeah, just because people like you are moving here, I just can’t be here anymore.’ And I’m here now and I’m complaining about the new people, and he was complaining about me, and I’m sure people were complaining about him.”
“A man who looked a bit like me, same eyeware, same order of sneaker, charged past. They were infiltrating, the freaking me’s. The me’s were going to wreck everything, hike rents, demand better salads. The me’s were going to drive me away.”
“After I’d dropped off Bernie I walked down to the park under the Hell Gate Bridge. It was one of those beautiful Fridays when everybody decided to ditch work, trust sheer numbers will protect them from retribution. Hondurans roasted chickens near the river, kicked soccer balls at their toddlers’ knees. Indian families spread out curry feasts on blankets…Beside a stone tower some youngish men played touch football with a battered Nerf. They were young me’s by the look of them, their watch caps and lazy passing routes, their Clinton-era trash talk. They had marked the end zones with packs of organic cigarettes and film theory pamphlets.
SL: I used to play in a football game down here every Sunday, which is mentioned in passing at the end of the book. It’s some other people playing, though. You know Keith Gessen? He started playing in our game and then he went to Brooklyn and started his own game and got all that attention for it.
FP: Oh yeah! So the roots are here?
SL: The roots are here. He’s also a far better athlete than the rest of us were, so he probably needed to go to Brooklyn.
SL: There is actually a comedy writing club at the grad school. But I think it was just two guys who were trying to get the school to pay for their tickets to the Aspen Comedy Festival.
FP: That’s a legit reason for a club. Did they get there?
SL: I don’t know. I met with them, I was the advisor for the club. I was all for it. They actually did organize some lunches where people would come in, often successful television writers. I did one.
FP: I feel like there aren’t that many well-respected literary comic writers.
SL: No. There are some, and some that don’t get read that much at the moment, but will.
FP: Who are you thinking of?
SL: Well I find the work of Deb Olin Unferth, whom you must know, to be brilliant and also quite funny. I don’t pigeonhole anybody as just comic, but there’s — Ben Marcus is another example, his writing can be absolutely hilarious, even as it can also be such a brilliant display of other elements.
FP: There’s a kind of prejudice against writing that if it’s funny, it can’t be really literary.
SL: Right. And I actually feel the exact opposite… I think things that take themselves really seriously, those things tend to be pseudo-literary.
FP: And/or written by teenagers.
SL: Saunders is a great comic writer. Padgett Powell is getting a lot of renewed attention. And Barry Hannah, who just sadly died, is very funny, while also being one of the most heartbreaking and all of that. I guess what we’re talking about is that there’s a certain type of book that really wants to present itself as worthy. And those can be entirely humorless and they win the prizes but often they are not my cup of tea. You know what I’m talking about.
FP: Yes, yes I do. Boring, serious books.
SL: The boring shit. I just like funny, scary, crazy, all those things.
FP: Well why waste your time on something that’s pretentious and boring? It’s just going to make you feel good about yourself the one time you get to name-drop it to someone and then you’ve spent all these hours of your life on it…
SL: Well, you can leave it on your coffee table.
FP: That’s true. That is a perk.
We’re pretty confident that people will be impressed by The Ask on your coffee table too — and we promise you won’t want the hours of your life you spent reading it back when you’re done. If you want a dose of the charming Sam Lipsyte yourself, he has a plethora of reading gigs all around the city in the upcoming weeks. Check him out:
3/12 – Book Court
3/16 – McNally Jackson (with Lorin Stein)
4/4 – Knitting Factory/Largehearted Lit Reading Series
4/7 – Happy Ending Reading Series with Adam Haslett
4/11 – KGB Reading Series with John Wray
4/15 – 192 Books