Friday, March 25, 2011

How To Ask

I'm going to start with a warning to all readers who enjoy books with admirable, virtuous main characters – this is not the book for you. The characters in Sam Lipsyte's The Ask are not easy to like. 

The book describes the crisis-riddled life of Milo Burke, a wannabe artist who works in the development office of a second-rate New York university which has aspirations to attain the prestige that only big donations can bring. And Milo's failure at 'the ask' (getting a big donor to cough up the dough) has gotten him fired. In addition Milo is getting little attention from his wife and little respect from his pre-school son Bernie.

Enter Purdy Stuart, Milo's college friend who has gone on to financial success and marriage to a super model. Purdy dangles a major 'give' with the condition that Milo be brought back to handle the negotiations. But Purdy's motives are complicated. He wants Milo to track his illegitimate son Don, an embittered Gulf war vet who threatens to disrupt Purdy's life.

That's the extent of the plot, but it doesn't begin to describe the roller coaster ride that reading this book provides. Milo is cynical, frustrated, inclined to rant and often vulgar, but he has redeeming qualities His love for his son threads through the story, and instead of being oblivious to the mistakes he is making, he is clear-eyed and amusingly self aware.

Lipsyte's prose is funny on every page, and yet he somehow captures Milo's decency and his pain. “The Ask” is witty and vulgar and cynical and honest, all at the same time.

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