Milo Burke — the “hero” of Sam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask — is a callous, sorry sack. Charged with propelling the action in this novel, Burke has a tall order: He has to ride atop Lipsyte’s sarcasm and apparent fear of actually being alive.
Burke’s a development officer at some mediocre New York university, and his job is to convince alumni to fork over big cash. As a failed artist, Burke hates his job. His wife kinda hates him. And to start the novel, he gets fired for insulting an important donor’s daughter. (He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t help himself.)
But — and this is the novel’s central action — he’s in luck. A super-rich “ask” happens to be an old friend of his, and the friend will work with no one else.
What follows — Burke cleaning up after the rich friend’s illegitimate son — has been called a “cynical, spot-on satire of America after the meltdown” and an “unrelenting tour de force of black bile.”
A fable for our times, perhaps, but the novel is such a downer. Work sucks. Aspirations are worthless. Being a dad is a bummer. Marriage doesn’t work. Friendships don’t last.
The Ask wallows in failure and bitterness, and it’s frightening to read. Is this how I should spend my free time? Reading about our horrible world and our broken culture? Why even go on living …?
Because life’s a gas, which gets to the book’s saving grace and mild annoyance. Burke is always ranting and way too clever. Here he is describing flirting: “It had been years since I’d flirted. I felt as though I were snorting cocaine, or rappelling down a cliffside, or cliffsurfing off a cliff of pure cocaine.” And here he is queuing at the post office behind a slow-moving procession of his neighborhood’s immigrants: “Don’t you worry your behavior will reduce me to generalizations about why your lands are historically f---ed?” He’s like some hopped-up jerk at a party whose jokes are funny for, like, 15 minutes — but an hour later? Or 300 pages later?