Sam Lipsyte @ McNally Jackson Books
I’m trumping my laziness and ignoring my backlog of insults. I met Sam Lipsyte at McNally Jackson last night.
He stared me down. He blankfaced me like I’d picked the dumbest fucking idea in the world out from between my teeth and flicked it on his lapels. And what was I even doing here, coughing out some stumbledrunk idea about insults. Plus, I had bad breath. Shit breath. Gargling turds and talking nonsense, why didn’t I just go home? Why didn’t I go to yoga instead? In the 20 seconds it took to mumble my usual introduction with decreasing volume and enthusiasm, I’d decided to run away on the opening lip-twitch of rejection like some frightened base runner going on the pitcher’s first twitch.
It wasn’t the reaction I’d expected, the blank look. It was theretofore inconceivable that Sam Lipsyte would be the type to spurn my insult. His books are the off-beat, dark kind of funny that’s right in my wheelhouse. This is the guy I’d loved like a literary Happy Meal during my toddler days of seeing myself as a capital-W Writer. Home Land was the book to pass along to friends I’d made in English and creative writing classes to prove my literary hipness. It proved I was the type of reader/Writer who of course read the classics and requisites fed to me but also found good books by looking. I sensed that his prose reflected back on me; by being the one to “find” his book — and it is a damn good book — it was somehow an affirmation of my taste, and by association, my skill as a writer. I got more traction in the undergrad literary scene out of Home Land, Hanif Kureshi’s Buddha of Suburbia, and my fake understanding of Barthelme than I had any right to.
That friend who glows with smug happiness when he plays that album you’ve never heard of but immediately love? That was me with Sam Lipsyte and Home Land, twirlin’ my litdick like a pocketwatch from a Luis Valdez play.
There was more to it than just growing out my social ego, though. Every time a buddy handed back Home Land with a grin, I shared in that vicious, vicarious literature boner. I’d relive my love of the book and as often as not, reread it. It was a book I desperately wanted to read before I knew it’d been written. I’d never had the 15-year-old’s Catcher in the Rye experience. I’d instead at that time privately nerdgasmed over Steinbeck and Hemmingway, and to a lesser extent, William Wharton and Irving Shaw. Maybe Home Land was my Catcher. I don’t know. I never had the foresight to talk about these sorts of things with my therapists.
When Sam met my eye, when he didn’t smile or seem surprised or “tickled” or even exasperated, I assumed the worst and was instantly, horribly crushed. Another literary luminary down the drain. Or rather: that was me receding, diminished in the eyes of someone from whom I hadn’t realized I’d needed approval. Crying my Alice tears, shrinking until I drown in my own saltiness. The scene had the potential to be some psychic catastrophe.
So I finally stopped jabbering. Bead of sweat, blood pressure, held breath. He didn’t speak; instead, he began to write. I stood quietly, stifling a little tremble of stress. He bent over the table, looking closely at his pen, the words as they appeared on the title page. When he finished with the first book, I touched my forehead with the sleeve of my tee and stammered about only needing the one insult and if he’d just address the rest “to Bill.” He looked up briefly from reaching for the second book and continued on writing. He wrote out four separate inscriptions, despite the 40 or so people waiting in line behind me.
When he was done, I gathered up the pile and began thanking him. Still he sat quietly, watching me with the same look he wore while Geoff was reading, situated somewhere between neutral and a hint of a smile. Like he’s seeing things that you shouldn’t be missing. Or maybe he thought I was about as amusing as Geoff Dyer’s story. I was wrapping up the thanks, when finally: Sam spoke. He told me that he’d been to my blog. Sam Lipsyte told me that he’d been to my blog, and that it was “very funny.”
I was at first more relieved that he spoke. Then, more happy that he didn’t reject me. It took a couple beats before I got it: a guy whose writing I unabashedly love and proselytize said he liked my… idea? Writing? I wish I’d had the balls to stick around and maybe chat him up, but I’d sort of floated away with the same clouded happiness I walked away from Karen Russell’s insult. Perhaps I don’t want to push my luck and find out more. Maybe Karen Russell was serious about knowing other writers who’d read my blog. Maybe some of these people who I idolize actually enjoy my writing? Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Again and again, I’m amazed at the knowledge, skill, and wit with which so many of these authors speak, like it’s second nature to be so damn right about something — anything — all the time. But I also love sharing in some secret pleasure of not the lowest common denominator, because so many of these insults have been high-brow zings, but maybe in the foolish but earnest pursuit. I (and maybe some other readers) want so badly to experience the genius behind my favorite books, and to see it in a way I can comprehend. And beyond the “genius,” the everyday life of not only being a professional writer, but writing what you want to write for a living. When someone like Sam Lipsyte seems to enjoy the idea, it’s like God’s golden stamp of approval descends from the clouds. That maybe I can.
The point is that Sam Lipsyte justified his place as a star in my clichéd sky yet somehow made himself more approachable. It’s like, why not me? You know?
Thanks again to McNally Jackson for making this discussion happen.