[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].
In Sam Lipsyte’s 2004 novel Home Land, minor loser Lewis Miner sends missives to his high school alumni newsletter, Catamount Notes, about his awful, sad misadventures in small-time drug use, petty copy-writing, itinerant busboyism, and chronic masturbation (he has a strong erotic disposition toward leg warmer porn. If this idea repels you (with no reciprocal attraction) this book is not for you). Miner wants to be sweet but he can be mean. He’s obsessed with the past–and who can blame him? His nickname in high school was Teabag, an appellation literally thrust upon him by the dumbest of jock-bullies. He carries this kernel of spite for years like a pebble in the sock, one that rubs up a giant blister–Miner is all blister. Writing ostensibly to his former classmates, but really just for himself, another form of masturbation:
It’s always been this way, as many of you might recall. Somebody chucks a snowball, I’m scouring the school yard for rocks. The bully just wants to shove sadness around, shake me down for spare change, I’m looking to scrape out his eye. I lack a sense of proportion. I have no sensitivity to sport. I’m the aggrieved rider on the grievous plain. I’m still pissed about the parade.
For all his anger though, Miner is an engaging, preternaturally sensitive voice. Along with his best friend/foil Gary, he muddles through a wretched life, finding solace (and an outlet for an outsized comic voice) in his letters to Catamount Notes–even if disgraced Principal Fontana won’t publish them. Despite his censorious discretion, Fontana reignites a downright silly mentorship with Miner. Fontana, a man after Holden Caulfield’s heart who calls everyone a “phony,” plays a weird father-figure to our favorite loser (even though Lewis’s own “Daddy Miner” is an ever-present terror in this tragicomedy).
Fontana, Daddy Miner, and the other characters in Home Land often feel like props rather than fully-drawn beings. Take the aforementioned Gary, for example, flush with cash after suing the hypnotherapist who convinced him that his parents sexually abused him repeatedly as part of elaborate Satanic rituals. His ridiculous past is par for course in the book. Such characters are the stock-in-trade of Home Land; they are, paradoxically, both its strength and weakness, beings who seem to speak entirely in misplaced metaphors and fucked-up aphorisms. There are too many of them for the book’s 200 pages. The fast writing never sags under the huge cast, but, nonetheless, its spine, its plot, its quick rhythm can’t bear their weight. There’s a much bigger novel here, but I don’t think I’d want to read it. Even Lipsyte’s normals are grotesques–or maybe it’s just Miner’s bilious perspective. In any case, sympathy is in short supply in Catamount country.
None of this is meant to disparage the reading experience of Home Land, which is marvelous, quick, funny, and a little bit gross (in a good way). Lipsyte crafts his sentences with a concrete, witty excellence that is near unrivaled in contemporary lit. It’s true that he sacrifices the depth of his characters here from time to time, and then includes passages that add nothing to the plot as a whole, like this one:
An older shapely woman swerved past on rollerblades. Bronzed, undulant in black Lycra, she clutched a pack of menthol cigarettes, danced on her wheels to something pumped through headphones. It was an admirable kind of ecstasy, hard-won. I wanted her for a lewd aunt.
That last line, of course, tells us so much about Lewis Miner and is also indicative of his overall method of storytelling. Not that he sees his letters to his alumni newsletter as part of a larger narrative–indeed, he’s to be forgiven all his esoterica, his mean, incisive commentary on contemporary life that doesn’t add up. Halfway through the book he tells us:
It occurs to me, Catamounts, sitting here composing this latest update, that someday, if and when the collected works of Lewis Miner ever see the light of day, some futuristic editor-type might attempt to assemble these dispatches in a certain manner, to, for example, tell a story, or else effect some kind of thematic arrangement of interwoven leitmotifs: Work, Love, Masturbation, Gary.
This would be a mistake. There are no leitmotifs. There is no story.
Miner then goes on to makes a pretty convincing case against stories (or at least against narrative arcs) and, tellingly, Home Land is better as a series of ugly, gross, hilarious anecdotes than it is as a novel with a traditional character arc. Which it is–a novel with a traditional character arc, climax, all that good stuff. Strangely, this is the book’s biggest failure. But that failure doesn’t get in the way of what is a pretty great and often very funny reading experience. Miner’s voice is a pleasure to inhabit for a while, a postmodern Falstaff heavy on the self-loathing. Home Land is a quick, easy read, a novel destined for cult-status, and Lewis Miner’s pathetic ironic braggadocio will hit home for many folks. Recommended.
Home Land is available in trade paperback from Picador.