"The Dungeon Master" by Sam Lipsyte Originally published in the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
This is my first encounter with Sam Lipsyte, though I’ve heard a lot about him since The Ask was published, and I have his story in the Fall 2010 The Paris Review to look forward to. “The Dungeon Master” didn’t make me more or less anxious to read that piece of fiction, “The Worm in Philly,” because it was good but not great for me.
The book centers around a young man who plays Dungeons and Dragons after school. If that turns some of you off, let me say that the story does not focus on Dungeons and Dragons, and any knowledge of that game is not necessary (or, perhaps it is, and that’s why this story wasn’t great to me). Within the group are several types of gamers. The Dungeon Master, in particular, takes the game very seriously and completely leaves the world behind:
“So why’d you get detention?” he says.
“When did I get detention?”
“Today,” I say. “You got it today.”
The Dungeon Master peers at me over his screen.
“Today, bold ranger, I watched a sad little pickpocket bleed out on a bakery floor. That’s the only thing that has happened today. Get it?”
“Got it,” I say.
I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.
The Dungeon Master and his little brother Marco are raised by their strange father, Dr. Varelli (“Play nice, my beautiful puppies.” and “I honor your wish, my beauty.”). Their mother left, somehow, years earlier. Our narrator comes from what appears to be a more stable family — at least, his parents worry about him, his playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his contact with the Varelli family.
“Is it fun?” my mother asks. “I want you to have fun, you know.”
“Yeah, it’s fun, I guess.”
My mother gives my father one of those meaningful looks which means nothing to me yet.
“What?” I say.
“The Varelli kid,” my sister says. “Isn’t he the one who flashed those girls at the ice rink. And set his turds on fire in the school parking lot?”
“That was a long time ago,” I say.
“It was kind of cool,” my sister says. “In a sicko way.”
“Poor Varelli,” my father says. “His wife.”
“That’s the think about it,” my mother says.
“The thing about what?” I say.
The story is a nice look at adolescence, with the vagaries and the chance and the attempts to understand how one fits in, though there is more darkness here than that suggests.
Perhaps as the story sits in my head and if more people comment, I can move this one up a few notches from just-above-indifferent.