May 22: “Old Soul” by Sam Lipsyte

Happy Sunday, Story366! Can I start with “Another beautiful day!” yet again? Well, it is. Yesterday, I spoke of how nice Missourians are, so I’ll have to also dote on the weather here. It snows a bit in January, which is nice, and the weather can be quite unpredictable in the spring months. Still, the number of what I’d call “perfect days” is much higher in Springfield than it is in Chicago or Northwest Ohio (the two other places I’ve lived). Moving down scale, the number of tolerable days is much higher, too, meaning that the number of intolerable days is considerably fewer.

Yet, at the height of the the beautiful part of this day, here I am, writing a blog post at some desk, actually talking about the weather. What, Story366 readers, have you and I just gotten on an elevator together? Did we just walk into the same pizza place to pick up a pie? Have we just encountered each other in the same video store backroom, searching for adult entertainment? You get the picture. No more words on the weather unless the weather is newsworthy, awful somehow. Knock on wood.

Speaking of uncomfortable encounters, for today’s post, I’ve read from Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte, out from Open City Books. Lipsyte is the author of other books, including another collection The Fun Parts, which I also have on the Story366 stack. Not sure if I’ll be doubling up on authors at any point this year, so I chose the small-press book, Venus Drive, just to give Open City more of a shout out. Lipsyte has also written a few novels, at least one of them a best-seller. I’ve haven’t read them, but I’ve heard they’re pretty spectastic.

Anyway, I used that transition “Speaking of uncomfortable encounters …” to star that last paragraph, then went off and made the paragraph the author bio paragraph. So, backtracking … speaking of uncomfortable encounters, wow, the stories in Venus Drive are pretty fucked-up. Or, they have feature fucked-up people doing fucked-up things—the stories themselves are pretty great. I was reading them in the bathroom just now—yeah, I do that, and so do you, so stop judging me—a bathroom in a campus building, so it was a stall, metal doors encasing me, granting me privacy. This factors in, because the first story, “Old Soul,” starts off in a peepshow booth. Sure, a Siceluff Hall bathroom stall is no peepshow booth, but in a small way, I felt like I was there, in a little box, slipping quarters into a slot so a pour soul would do awful things for me. That’s not too much of a stretch, is it?

Maybe it is. But the story “Old Soul” is no stretch, nothing that tries to be anything but what it is. The narrator, of the first-person present variety, is in a peep booth, shelling out money for a woman to let him fondle her through a slot in a glass partition. He’s not to poke, scratch, pull or tweak, just caress—even peepshow joints have to have standards, I guess. Anyway, our narrator is having a good old time, but when the woman in the booth turns around, offers him her bare backside, he becomes obsessed with a pimple she has in a vicarious place. First he thumbs it, then pokes at it, getting himself kicked out of the place, Peep City, for good. Thank goodness there’s Peeptown so our guy can still get his peeps in. He does eventually go to Peeptown, or some similar establishment, which is a much more relaxed sort of peeping joint. One of the peepees even heads back to his place with him—he had to promise to buy her drugs, but still. I’d bet she’d even let him do whatever to her pimples. Lipsyte proves here that there’s someone for everyone in “Old Soul.” So, lonely Story366 reader, there’s hope for you yet.

Now that all the peeping talk is out of the way—I’ve just taken a break to wash my hands and face—the story is actually about something else. Amidst all the filthy behavior our narrator exhibits, it might be for a reason: His beloved sister is in a cancer ward, dying, and he’s having trouble mustering the strength to go and visit her. Even his deadbeat druggie friend Gary, the one who referred him to Peep City, nags him until he sees his sister. It’s like, come on, she has cancer. She’s dying. Go see your sister.

Our boy does just that, redeeming him and his lifestyle and his choices and his logic. Right? That’s what’s supposed to happen in stories, isn’t it? The protagonist finds redemption, changes somehow. One minute, this guy’s popping zits on a sex worker’s ass, the next, he’s kneeling next to his poor sister, comforting her as she’s ready to expire. Story 101, really. Good for you, Sam Lipsyte.

Well, if you read “Old Soul” and think that, you’ll be surprised. Usually, being surprised in a story is a good thing—pleasant, as they say. Trust me, though, dear Story366 reader, how Lipsyte ends his story, with as surprising  of an ending as any I’ve read this year, is in no way redemptive, does not really indicate any kind of change. You’ll need to read the story to find out what it is, but brace yourself.

I’ve been playing the “oh, that’s disgusting” card a lot in this post, pretending to somehow be offending by things like the sex industry and drug addiction, when really, I don’t care. It’s a story, and I’m more than aware of the depths that people will go to make money, to get off, two things that often conflate. That’s why there’s a sex industry. I actually admire “Old Soul” a lot for being so honest, for writing about a bad guy and not making him good, skipping the redemption part altogether, making him worse. How many stories have I read like that this year? Not a whole lot. Lipsyte’s other stories in Venus Drive are like that, too, full of opportunistic, down-and-out people, a combination that’s going to lead to some crazy, fucked-up shit. Good for Lipsyte to write a book like that. His stories will stick with me longer than if he’d somehow held back, made his characters more likeable, empathetic. That would have been predictable, but who reads stories for predictability?

Venus Drive is the book I’ve described above, at least in its first three stories. Again, I’m not sure if I’ll be Story366ing The Fun Parts this year, but I do want to read that book, just to see what it is that Sam Lipsyte does, if his characters in his other books are just as morally insipid as the ones I’ve encountered. He’s piqued my interest for sure, and given the court of public opinion on his work, I’m not the only one.