Sam Lipsyte has returned to short fiction, the form that won him acclaim in 2000 with "Venus Drive." Lipsyte, whose father, Robert, is a famous sportswriter, turned his attention to long-form fiction for most of the last dozen years. During that time he published three novels, including the best-seller "The Ask" in 2010.
And now here comes "The Fun Parts" — a slim collection of darkly comic stories that have appeared in such publications as McSweeney's, The New Yorker, Open City, The Paris Review, Playboy and Tin House. Its pages are populated with characters living on the extreme edges of what might be considered a normal existence.
Leading the parade is Tovah Gold, a preschool teacher who's really a poet. She is 36 years old and so desperate to have a baby that she allows herself to consider a relationship with the manipulative, super-rich father of one of her students. He repulses her at first (she mis-hears his name as Randy Goat), but he soon becomes the top candidate for baby daddy, not to mention chief funder of the poetry journal she plans to edit one day.
Tovah reappears two stories later as the best friend of Mandy, a Holocaust survivor's daughter who starts an affair with a man covered in Nazi tattoos. At this point Tovah is now writing fiction and has moved from her job at the preschool to working at the nursing home where Mandy's father is spending his final days. Tovah's arrival sets up the promise of interconnectedness. Will "The Fun Parts" turn out to be a kind of contemporary "Winesburg, Ohio," set in New York City and suburban northern New Jersey? Alas, no, our expectation is disappointed. Tovah's reappearance turns out to be a fluke, an accident of collecting stories that had once been scattered among various periodicals into a single volume.
The parade resumes. Lipsyte is the master of the uncomfortable situation, and if anything unifies these stories, it's not only geography but also his fondness for squirmy misfits such as Mitch, a sociopathic male doula.
Yesterday the Gottwalds were the stunned and grateful progenitors of a mewling miracle.
We even did a group hug.
Today the Gottwalds are the smug bastards they've probably always been, and the Gottwald baby, well, he might only be two days old, but I can already predict he's going to be a miserable little turd. Stay in this gig long enough, you know these things. I don't mention any of this to the Gottwalds. It's not my place. I'm no Nostradamus. I'm the doulo. Or doula, if you want to get technical, tick me off.
"What does doula mean, anyway?" Mr. Gottwald asked during my interview. This was a month before his wife's water broke.
"It's a Greek word for slave," I told him, "but don't get any ideas. My rates are steep."
"I'm glad you agree," said Mr. Gottwald.
"Perhaps you might outline your services," said Mrs. Gottwald.
"Perhaps I might."
"Like examples," said Mr. Gottwald.
"Examples," I said, glanced about their gleaming loft, felt my hand closing on the ultralights in my coat. "Okay if I smoke in here?"
"Is that a joke?" said Mr. Gottwald.
"Absolutely," I said. "Or maybe even a test."
Lipsyte speaks in a variety of voices. Some of his stories inch toward the experimental. Others fit firmly into the conventions of the short story form, complete with endings that seem to come out of nowhere. Even when he deploys old tricks — for example, the single dramatic incident that is experienced from the perspective of multiple characters, or the narrator who turns out in the last sentence to have been a suicide, speaking to us from the grave — he does it with confidence and flair.
From time to time, Lipsyte allows himself jokes that seem overly familiar. ("I was no longer experimenting with drugs. I knew exactly what to do with them.") But then he follows up with a fresh surprise, such as the lost soul who's sleeping with his ex-mother-in-law, "an old beauty with hair the color of metallic marmalade."
Occasionally it seems as if Lipsyte is interested in his characters purely for their freak appeal, making you wish they had more skin in the game. When he writes, "Her story had heart havoc and threat, but no self-annihilation," it comes across as a fair criticism of some of his own creations.
And then, on the next page, he startles you, and you go back and look for clues about what may have led to the self-annihilation.
Dean Olsher has been a broadcaster for more than 30 years, most of which he has spent in public radio. He is author of the book "From Square One: A Meditation, with Digressions, on Crosswords."
"The Fun Parts"
By Sam Lipsyte, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pages, $24