by Sam Lipsyte
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$25.00 List Price
There’s probably not a living American writer who has so comprehensively mined the comic possibilities of that particular anguished, hapless combination of the overeducated and the underachieving as Sam Lipsyte. Against all odds, his heroes refuse to succeed, and they and we are rewarded with the endlessly entertaining spectacle of their nonstop humiliation.
The Ask features Milo Burke—leave it to Lipsyte to hybridize Joseph Heller’s monster of systematized selfishness with the eighteenth-century humanist—of “the House of Wanker,” whose life hasn’t panned out, by which I mean he’s both spectator and spear carrier in the theater of his own economic and spiritual collapse. Milo’s a fund-raiser for the arts program at a third-tier institution he calls “the Mediocre University at New York City.” While his colleagues have delivered endowed chairs or editing suites or sculpture gardens, his last big ask—asks denoting either likely donors or what his school wants from them—failed to land even a few promised plasma TVs. Barely hanging on, Milo is a hiring mistake “bobbing along on the energy tides of others.” He particularly despises the obliviousness of the overindulged student body he’s working to support, partly because he, too, “had once been a fraud, chockablock with self-regard.” When insulted by one donor’s undergraduate daughter, he responds with “nothing an arrogant, talentless, daddy-damaged waif wants to hear about herself,” and his career is over.
Until, that is, it’s resuscitated by the news that his ex-employer wants to go global and link to other mediocre universities