Thursday, 6 May 2010


It was Donald Ray Pollock who first drew my attention to Sam Lipsyte's work in a Q&A he did for the Roving Editor back in 2008. Don praised Lipsyte's 'great and quirky' collection Venus Drive. I sought out his work online and discovered the stories 'Cremains' and 'Flashback, or Why Nobody Won the Fight Between Our Fathers in Walt Wilmer's Toolshed'. Their pitch-black humour and terse, self-incriminating narrative voices reminded me strongly of early Beckett fictions (in particular First Love and Other Novellas) mixed with the earthiness of Bukowski.

Lipsyte has produced three novels since Venus Drive. His latest, The Ask, will appear in the UK next month, thanks to independent publisher Old Street. (Full disclosure: I occasionally do some work for Old Street in my capacity as a freelance editor.) The Observer has already flagged up what amounts to a major coup for a small UK publisher, given the widespread critical acclaim The Ask has enjoyed in the States, not to mention its respectable showing on the New York Times bestseller list.

On the evidence of what I have read so far, The Ask is that rarest of literary beasts, a comic novel that manages to be both funny and profound. Its beleaguered protagonist Milo Burke has echoes of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, while the world of work is depicted with the same merciless eye for detail that made Then We Came to the End so bracing and true. Milo is a fund-raiser for a university in New York he knows is second-rate, but for which he is obliged to make 'the ask', a role that puts him in touch with a wealthy former college friend who has questionable motives for making 'the give'. I'm hoping the working out of the plot is as satisfying as this premise -- and the promise of the opening chapters -- suggests.

If further persuasion is needed, take this endorsement of The Ask from another fine writer who has been featured on these pages, Wells Tower: 'One of the most hilarious and perfectly executed books that I've read in recent years.'

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