Monday, December 14, 2009

6. Home Land: A Novel by Sam Lipsyte

Homeland by Sam Lipsyte is one of the funniest books I have read in a while. The novel is written as a series of letters to a high school alumni newsletter from an alum who "didn't pan out." After Lewis “Teabag” Miner somehow winds up on the mailing list for Eastern Valley High's alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes, and suffers through all the updates from all the Catamount doctors, lawyers, bankers, and brokers who are buying houses, having kids and accomplishing all the other milestones of middle class life he decides to write back from the perspective of someone who has gone a different route since graduation.

"We've got a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst... Is this what Principal Fontana meant by the phrase "well-rounded?"
It's fucking spherical, Catamounts.

Alas, my meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison."

Although the book doesn't aspire to much more than acidic black comedy the writing aims high, giving Lewis an erudite and literary voice which enhances the comedy when juxtaposed with such bleak and disturbing material. The style is similar to that found in McSweeny's where mannered, literary prose is applied tongue-in-cheek to banal subject matter for humorous effect, only here the subject matter is much darker and the satire much more biting.

Each chapter is presented as a letter to the editor of Catamount Notes but the narrative isn't really constrained by this gimmick. Once the story gets going plot events and dialogue are presented just like in any other story. At first the updates are just stream of consciousness rants cataloging the various indignities of Lewis's daily life and everything that is wrong with it. There are many anecdotes from the high school days that inform on the current state of his character, from the lusting over the jazz dance squad that inspired his fetish for knit leggings, to the locker room bullying incident that resulted in his unfortunate nickname and various sordid details of the more successful classmates' past that undermine the careful images they try to present in the Notes. Characters from the past keep popping up in Lewis's daily life as well, including the former principal (now fallen far from grace), and wouldn't you know there is a reunion coming up.

See, here's the problem with these book reviews, especially when it's a good book: I'll spend an hour or more trying to compose a decent introduction to the story (without giving to much away) and try to find new and varied ways of heaping praise on the writer, and I'll search for the perfect lines to include as a quote and I'll struggle for the right conclusion that will leave you curious to read the book for yourself... and all I really want to do is put the book in your hands and let you read it- just the first few pages- and from that you will know everything you need to know much better than I can explain it.

So fuck it, here's 1,000 words from the first few pages of Homeland by Sam Lipsyte. It will be the highlight of your day. I didn't write it, I just found it for you (but I should be getting a commission because if my humble readership doesn't flock to Amazon- or at least their local library- after reading this, I'll be amazed).


It's confession time, Catamounts.

It's time you knew the cold soft facts of me. Ever since Principal Fontana found me and commenced to bless my mail slot, monthly, with the Eastern Valley High School Alumni Newsletter, I've been meaning to write my update. Sad to say, vanity slowed my hand. Let a fever for the truth speed it now. Let me stand on the rooftop of my reckoning and shout naught but the indisputable: I did not pan out.

We've got Catamount doctors, after all, Catamount lawyers, brokers, bankers well versed in the Eastern Valley purr. (Okay, maybe it was never quite a purr. Maybe more a surly mewl. But answer me this: Why did we fail so miserably to name this noise with which we spurred out sporting types to conquest? Moreover, why was the mascot of Eastern Valley an animal that prefers elevation? A catamount is a mountain cat, Catamounts!) We've got a state senator, a government chemist, a gold-glove ballplayer, not to mention, according to the latest issue of Catamount Notes, a major label recording artist in our midst.

Yes, fellow alums, we're boasting bright lights aplenty these days, serious comers, future leaders in their fields. Hell, we've even got a fellow who double-majored in philosophy and aquatic life management in college and still found time for a national squash title. Think about it, Catamounts. We didn't have squash at Eastern Valley. We didn't have tennis, either, unless you count that trick with the steel hairbrush and the catgut racquet whereby the butt skin of the weak was flayed. Point being, this boy, Will Paulsen (may he rest in peace), left our New Jersey burg without the faintest notion of squash, yet mastered it enough to beat the pants off every prep school Biff in the land, and still carry a four point zero in the question of Why does the Universe Exist Underwater?

Is this what Principal Fontana meant by the phrase "well-rounded?"

It's fucking spherical, Catamounts.

Alas, my meager accomplishments appear pale, if not downright pasty, in comparison. I shudder at the notion of Doctor Stacy Ryson and State Senator Glen Menninger remarking this update at some fund-raising soiree—oh, the snickers, the chortles, the wine-flushed glances, and later, perhaps, the puppyish sucking of body parts at a nearby motor lodge. Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How's bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?


Here's the latest by me, Valley Kitties: I rent some rooms in a house near the depot. I rarely leave them, too. When you work at home, fellow alums, discipline is the supreme virtue. Suicidal self-loathing lurks behind every coffee break. Activities must be expertly scheduled, from shopping to showers to panic attacks. Meanwhile I must make time to pine for Gwendolyn, decamped three years this June, the month we were to wed. So much for scheduling. Valley Cats who maintained vague contact with me in the midnineties may recall Gwendolyn, that doe-eyed, elklike beauty I met at an aphorism slam in Toronto. What you may not realize is how much I truly loved her, if that's the word for wanting so much to bury your head and weep upon the coppery tufts of a woman's sex while reciting "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," you can hardly sit on the sofa with her.

Gwendolyn's gone now. The sofa's still here. It's deep and velveteen, a goodly nook for napping, or reading in magazines about Gwendolyn and Lenny, her movie star brother, love, and unacknowledged legislator of her life. They take lazy walks along the shoreline, buy antique paper lanterns for their patio. I don't begrudge them their bliss, if it's bliss. Bliss has my blessing. A patio, though, let a quake crack it open. Let the black earth eat them.

Gwendolyn always said I expected too much from the world.

"You wake up every morning like you should get a parade."

I told her I deserved one with the dreams I endure, the kind that find me sobbing myself awake, groping for last night's roach, or else standing at the fridge until dawn sucking on a frozen bagel. I mean dreams where tremendous dragons rear their spiny heads, sink tall teeth in my neck, muss my hair, sign my report card, call me "Darling," "Shmoo-shmoo." Survive that, you should absolutely get a parade, a lavish procession, a town car motorcade through the Canyon of Heroes with our very own Catamount legend Mikey Saladin, who, if you've been following his career, has really blossomed into a fiercesome example of the hulking contemporary shortstop. (Sorry you had to sit out the World Series, Mikey! Good luck in arbitration!)

But I digress from our topic: discipline. You see, good graduates of Eastern Valley, I'm my own boss. I'm also my own sex slave. I'll squander the hours I should be working trolling the Internet for pictures of women whose leg warmers have been spattered with semen. You could call this my kink, Catamounts, and there are more specimens floating about in the ether than you may care to imagine, though not nearly enough for me. Lately I've stumbled across the same photos again and again. I'm beginning to know names, or else bestow them: Jasmine, Loretta, Brie. I'm sure those names will sound familiar to most of you, and as for Jasmine, Loretta, and Brie themselves, immortal lovelies of the Jazz Dancing Club, what can I say but, "Sorry, ladies." I've been beating off to you for half my lifetime, why should I stop now?

But fret not your frittered looks, ex-Eason Valley girls, your time-slung slack and crinkle. When I exercise my right to self-love I run a sort of projected aging program in my mind, picture you vixens in your necessary twilight, your bodies dinged up by babies, gravity, regret. I figure it's only fair. I'm no young buck myself, though, of course, just turn to my "Intimate Portraits" page in the yearbook and you'll see that I was never anything approaching bucklike. Not unless there's such a thing in nature as a buck turtle.

—From the book Home Land by Sam Lipsyte; Copyright (c) 2005.

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