Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Selection of the Month: "Three Thousand Dollars" by David Lipsky

brown-symbol.gif Book Selection of the Month (October 2008, the Month of Horror): Three Thousand Dollars by David Lipsky

Today is October 19, 2008, which means it’s been twenty-one years to the day since the Black Monday stock market crash, the market’s second-biggest one-day percentage dip ever — on the day prior to the one on which I began taking notes about my experiences as a Brown University freshman, which one year ago today became the opening entries of my autobiographical “Retro-Journal.”

This also means it’s been about two decades since I, as an undergrad, saw a nervous-looking David Lipsky read his rather conservative short story, called “Relativity,” to a skeptical, liberal-filled Brown audience, mere months after he’d graduated from that school himself. I recently reread “Relativity” and read the Lipsky short story collection in which it appeared — Three Thousand Dollars — after being given the book by Dan Greenberg (whose own time at Brown overlapped Lipsky’s and mine).

The story accurately shows how Brown’s inept disciplinary system in those days was buttressed by the students’ and faculty’s abysmal moral relativism (of the sort that proclaims everyone a victim — except the privileged, who are oppressors). “Relativity” holds up very well, as did other entries in the collection, including the title story about a painful child-support dispute and one about a son not so unlike David Lipsky dealing with his mom’s New-York-artists milieu.


Perhaps I should deduct points from all “literary” fiction writers whose stuff too closely resemble their own lives, since, as Tom Wolfe urged back around the same time Lipsky was writing these stories, writers could be doing research and transporting us to unfamiliar places. Heck, they could even be transporting us to unfamiliar places without doing any research, as in the case of sci-fi and fantasy novels, which I’ve decided are all I’m going to read next year, reality having finally exhausted my considerable patience.

But better slices of something resembling the author’s own life or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, a whole different world than the often self-protective and cutesy-clever short-stories-as-games that I think are all the rage lately, as I was telling my friend Katherine Taylor after her participation in a night of readings organized by Opium magazine recently. The Opium-affiliated writers are always undeniably clever, but I may now have heard too many stories by young writers that involve something like the narrator waking up to discover that his anxieties about his writing career having taken the form of a talking dog that leads him on some brief, possibly pun-filled postmodern adventure.

Give me psychological realism, or detailed knowledge of World War I, or detailed faux-knowledge of the desert planet Arrakis, but if it’s some word-game involving The Day I Woke Up to Find That My High School Track and Field Trophy Had Become The Talking Head of Shakespeare, I might as well just be doodling random cartoons on a high school notebook cover (which is not to say that these young precious-clever-twee types won’t build the future of literature as they turn their skills to larger and riskier topics — they well may).


But getting back to this month’s main author: Lipsky turns out to be a friend of a friend, namely of last month’s Book Selection of the Month author, Pagan Kennedy, which I honestly hadn’t realized until separately picking them. The record, I have now learned, shows I am far from alone in being amazed by Lipsky, though, so it’s not just that I like him for being a distant part of my milieu. Numerous critics praised him for sounding so polished and insightful while still an undergrad and then grad student, and he’s gone on to be a successful writer and editor. Good for him.

(Similarly, my upcoming July 2009 Book Selection author, Susan Price, seemed great to me when I was about ten and was reading a book she’d written at the age of sixteen, and I only now learn that my taste was prescient in that case, too, as she’s gone on to a long and distinguished horror/children’s horror career as a novelist. I just have good taste, what can I tell you?)

As for Brown, it remains something of a chamber of horrors (as befits this month’s blog theme). By sheer coincidence, I only just learned last week that Adam Lack, who was temporarily driven away from Brown by absurd sexual assault charges (the drunk woman does not deny giving him her number the next morning and only deciding much later to redefine their encounter as assault) and who was featured in an ABC News report by John Stossel back when I worked for him, more recently found himself at odds with another man in an unrelated legal case in which Lack’s conflict with Brown was used to cast aspersions on him, leading, it appears (I do not pretend to know the details), to an escalating conflict that ended, like something out of a horror movie, with a hostile car chase in which Lack accidentally drove off a cliff and was killed.

If one of the feuding students in Lipsky’s story had come to a similar end, of course, he would be considered a less realistic author — and probably be far less respected because of it. Witness the fact that Reid Mihalko and I did not receive a Pulitzer for our weekly comic strip at Brown about the school being taken over by brain-eating aliens who turn everyone into left-wing zombies. On the bright side, knowing Reid has brought me other benefits, such as a sorely-needed third bookcase for my apartment, which I bought from Reid’s girlfriend and CuddleParty co-founder Marcia Baczynski today, carting it the eight blocks north to my Upper East Side apartment with the help of my visiting parents, who hadn’t met Marcia before. Maybe I’ll put Three Thousand Dollars on that bookcase, just to tie some of these threads together.


pirco said...

I loved it so much I stole it from the los angeles public library by throwing it out a third story bathroom window then retrieving it at ground level. Somebody (don’t know who) stole it from me. Another fan? Or karma?

jenny said...

only sci-fi and fantasy? have you read any of richard k. morgan’s stuff (a trilogy about an intelligence operative/mercenary named takeshi kovacs and two standalones)? good stuff, if you haven’t. i’m also partial to george r.r. martin’s westeros series, not least because he has a habit of killing off the most sympathetic characters. and his armageddon rag was pretty good, too.

Todd Seavey said...

The books for next year have been chosen, so I won’t be taking any new recommendations, but it’s always interesting to hear what people think is the best stuff.

jenny said...

i always knew you were methodical, put picking out your entire reading list for 2009 already? my mind boggles.

Todd Seavey said...

And timed so the Book Selection blog entries coincide with film releases with which they in some way resonate. I hope you’ve got your 3D glasses ready for the December 2009 IMAX spectacular _Avatar_ by James Cameron, featuring Sigourney Weaver, for instance. Never too soon to plan (yet this Friday is slightly up in the air at the moment — should have that figured out soon).

marcia B said...

I’m just glad the bookcase went to a good home where it will be filled with smart books and comic books. Much as it was when it lived at my place.

David Lipsky said...


Thanks for picking up the book again. A lot of sour feelings got condensed in that long story, but I hope they fermented into something bracing, funny and good. You know how flipped out and carnival the atmosphere turned in Providence during the eighties. I remember that reading, and feeling pretty shaky: a lot of glaring for one classroom in Wilson Hall. A friend of mine by chance picked up the story again this week — he’d found it in a bookstore in LA – and told me how much it brought the time back.

Cool that you know Pagan, who’s an excellent person. Please give Dan Greenberg my best, too.

All best,