A Brash, Indelicate Talent Examines Early-Midlife Drift

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte. Picador, 240 pages, $13.

What to call male, unmarried life between the age of 27 and 40? Sunset youth? Still-coming-of-age? These are years of rejiggered aspiration, metabolic slowdown, waning cool.

Boo-hoo. It ain’t prostate cancer. It ain’t Falluja. Does anyone want to read fiction about not-quite-still-young men contemplating their place in the world?

Sam Lipsyte must hope so: It’s his turf, the furrow he’s plowed through three books of light-show prose. His very funny new novel of early-midlife male drift, Home Land, contains some of the most entertaining sentences I’ve read since Martin Amis was hot. But-wisely, perhaps-it claims no spot-lit seat in the canon. “I do not write for the dead,” Lewis (Teabag) Miner tells us. No, indeed; his life story-told in a series of personal updates to his high-school alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes-is really for guys like himself, guys who’d lift a weary salute to his page-1 mea culpa: “It’s confession time, Catamounts … I did not pan out.”

Mr. Lipsyte has had a certain niche appeal since his 2000 debut collection of stories, Venus Drive (published by the book arm of New York’s literary magazine Open City). The stories were hit or miss, but the hits-”Ergo, Ice Pick” and “Torquemada” especially-were knockouts. Are you up for heroin, elderly abuse, incest and rough sex? Read Venus Drive. The book’s battering, jump-cut prose and shock-tactic plots could be a little wearying, and many readers likely tired before the end. Nevertheless, Venus Drive showed indelicate, unembarrassed talent-the best kind.

The Subject Steve (2001) was a more polished effort. An existentialist text for the 30-ish, defeated set, Mr. Lipsyte’s first novel followed the adventures of an ex-advertising man condemned to die of a mysterious disease. The central notion here-dying is a metaphor for living-would be depressing without Mr. Lipsyte’s extremist imagination. The disease-afflicted Steve gets entangled with a redemption cult of New Age sadists who offer purification through torture. Funny, right? Somehow, it is, thanks to Mr. Lipsyte’s prose: “Heinrich’s punch landed somewhere in the vicinity of my liver. Next thing, I was performing a sort of fetal waltz across the floor planks.” The first half of The Subject Steve is bravura stuff, but the novel goes loose and meandering in the second half. Here’s the thing: For all his brilliant set pieces, Mr. Lipsyte’s work lacks forward throttle, what-next momentum. Reading a Lipsyte book is like watching a talent show, not a play.

This is true of Home Land, a lightly plotted book of racy sentence rhythms, conjured verbs and quick-witted exchanges. It’s not a page-turner-but the writing is so lively I didn’t really care. In too much new fiction, the prose is just a delivery system for plot, character and theme, full of pre-fab, cliché-studded formulations. Such narrative moves along-too well. To read Mr. Lipsyte is to linger a little, to savor the riffs and punchlines.

Here’s our narrator recalling the scene of his first sex: “We popped each other’s cherries down the shore after the prom, both of us gooned on Sambuca while that motel TV filled the room with game show.”

Here he is talking to his stoner friend Gary:

“So, exactly how high are you?”

“One to ten?”

“Sure.”

“Wait, one to what?”

What makes Home Land work isn’t just the humor-nor the anecdotes of kinky sex and madcap violence Teabag relates to his fellow Catamounts (amusing as they are). Ultimately, Home Land works because Mr. Lipsyte has become a little less savage, a little less grim. Teabag, a wallowing, mistake-prone, not-quite-still-young man, becomes someone you actually care about by the end of the novel, an affecting turn that makes up for the book’s idling plot. Here’s a guy with no girlfriend, dead or unloving parents, intermittent, barely remunerative employment and only one friend-but he’s lousy with wit, sturdied by a core of pride and, finally, sort of wise.

Our loser hero knows as well as anyone the pitfalls of our hyper-aspirational culture, the way we all figure ourselves to be budding celebrities, nascent rock stars, maverick artists-to-be. Beware such ego, Teabag warns: You, like me, may not pan out. He writes, “Not to say I never had any plans. I had plans. I could picture myself in various places. But I was never doing anything in these pictures, these places. I was just sort of standing there, being congratulated for something. Sometimes I had a glass of punch in my hand.” The lesson of Teabag’s disappointed 30′s is that such narcissism can be dangerous. What do we really need to be happy? Follow the guy all the way to the end of the novel, through his raucous, bloody Eastern Valley High reunion, and you’ll get your answer: a sense of humor, a talent for the nicely turned phrase-and, most importantly, the capacity for love.

“You’re an enemy of feeling,” Gary tells Teabag midway through Home Land. In the end, I’m happy to say, Teabag proves him wrong.

Taylor Antrim is an associate editor at Forbes FYI.