By Drew Hart
Sam Lipsyte’s latest novel does a bang-up job of capturing the edgy and zany milieu of the early ’90s.
No One Left To Come Looking For You by Sam Lipsyte. Simon & Schuster, 224 pp.
Ah, the Lower East Side of Manhattan – alphabet-lettered streets, mangy storefronts, dilapidated tenements with bathtubs in kitchens, apartment doors secured by iron rods in floor traps… probably clocking these days in at three grand a month’s rent? (Just checked Craigslist; that’s lowballing it!) But let’s backtrack a bit, time travel with the always amusing Sam Lipsyte and his wry comic latest, No One Left to Come Looking For You. Perhaps the title is clunky, but this novel is generally nimble – a capable intrigue so enhanced by atmosphere and pop detail that they command as much attention as the storyline.
So we’re looking at life in the ’90s here, in the early days of Clinton, the dissolution of the USSR, and ‘the end of history’. In downtown New York, all of that seems secondary to one Jonathan Liptak – part-time dishwasher, call center worker, corporate office plant servicer… and an aging member of a grunge band named The Shits. He has taken to calling himself ‘Jack’ – as in ‘jackshit’ – to lend a punch to his act. But this act is in flux: the band’s girl drummer is leaving to join an avant garde duo. The Shits have a show lined up soon at a punk club, but she may not make it. And worse still, the lead singer Alan, Jack’s roommate, has disappeared, presumably to satisfy his heroin appetite – and he’s made off with Jack’s treasured bass? Presumably to trade for another fix?
Now what… A kind of odyssey begins, as Jack weaves in and out of the bars, pawn shops, dollar slice pizza joints in the neighborhood, which it scarcely ever leaves… something of a closed-circuit world. His search leads to encounters with homeless drifters, posing scenesters, scary thugs who threaten tenants of businesses owned by, or contractors trying to collect on… one Donald Trump? (The big guy himself has a cameo here, at a pretentious gallery opening!) One of the hit men, an enormous brute named Mounce with the head of an Easter Island statue, is a special problem; he’s first found trying to sell Jack’s bass in a guitar shop, failing when he can’t produce paperwork for it. Later he is a suspect in the murder of the leader of one of Jack’s former bands, which brings hard-boiled detectives into the picture. Further on he is on the verge of attempting to kill Jack himself.
Things unfold over time; in between there are vivid, often hilarious period references – No One is replete with ’90s artists, rock and film critics, real and imagined. Pauline Kael and Nick Tosches receive mention. Acts with names like Thorazine, Lorna Prune, and Gimp Mask Goethe are on hand, with songs such as “Orange Julius Rosenberg” and “Intercontinental Ballistic Buttplug (in Caspar Weinberger’s Butt).”
The spoiler potential in Lipsyte’s yarn is sizable – suffice to say that Jack’s bass is returned to him, by the detectives who apprehend the bodyguard Mounce. The Shits make it to their gig, attempting to play in improvised fashion without their singer. But then he shows up suddenly, having left the hospital bed he’s been in after a stabbing, attired in a gown. An era ends, and our players depart for new lives – in rehab, in the distant states they predictably came from, or, in Jack’s case, to ponder the unknown future as a blizzard descends on the city.
It’s probably wrongheaded to assert that the world here is any crazier or grittier than today’s – the differences exist, yet the net is the same – but No One, above all else, does a bang-up job capturing the edgy and zany milieu of the era. That is enough in itself to guarantee you an amusing excursion.
Drew Hart writes from Santa Barbara, California.