Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website. Sam Lipsyte’s “The Naturals” was originally published in the May 5, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I loved Sam Lipsyte’s story, “The Naturals.” A story about death, it’s crammed with life. It’s funny, poignant, awful, wonderful, thoughtful, scary, and witty. It is so filled with acts of love by such flawed people it’s like watching a Cirque du Soleil put on by the local Lions Club. How dare we live when we’re so bad at it? How fair is it that we die, when, occasionally, we’re so good at life? How do we deal with it all, anyway?
Caperton, a single guy with business problems, has to fly home. His father is dying — again. Home means revisiting his mother’s death, his lonely childhood, and his father’s failures as a father. Home means, in the words of his step mother Stell, the temptation or even compulsion to unleash the inner “crumbun.” Life, the way it does for all of us, seems to be happening all at once to Caperton: his father is dying, the love of his life has left him, and his consulting business is falling apart. That is not to mention the fact that Caperton has to watch his step-mother and his father’s best friend take solace in each other.
You’ve been in a house where someone is dying, right? It’s not all hospice and honey. (Though Hospice is one of the great, great inventions of the twentieth century.)
Caperton seems to have a split consciousness: that life ought to be capers and cream cheese, on the one hand, and that life is as heavy as heavy as a ton of bricks, on the other. He is filled with “an unassuageable rage,” and he tells us about how he is periodically seized by “The Intermittent Belt of Sorrow,” something that feels an awful lot like an impending heart attack to the reader. So familiar to me, and maybe to you, too. Is he going to make it, the story asks? Or, if he does, how?
I loved this story, I loved these people, I loved the riffs on food, and I loved the offhand fruitcake mélange of serious literary stuff. How do we deal with death? One way we deal is we eat. One way we deal is to flounder around. Inevitably, we deal by behaving really badly. In the house of death we even fight with each other. Sometimes we even rough each other up. Oh, so sad! So totally off-base! So true!
But way more to the point, we tell stories. That’s what Lipsyte does, and that’s what the characters in this story talk about — they talk about stories! But how they talk! Like real people.
Each of the characters in this story has a take on how stories work and why they’re important and what they should be. This potpourri about story-telling is fabulous and worth the read in and of itself. I want to take a minute and remark that TV, the internet, movies, memoir, advice, and stories are all legitimate parts of their discussion, and in fact, a rave about a TV serial (what Roddy Doyle would have called a “Box Set”) turns out to be pivotal in the way Caperton’s father is able to give him a parting gift. Lipsyte is echoing Roddy Doyle: writing comes in all forms, and readers come in all types. I even wondered if either Lipsyte or The New Yorker editors were reacting to Roddy Doyle and the pull TV had for his characters a few weeks back in “Box Sets.” Caperton and his father discuss which version of The Natural is better, the movie, with its changed ending, or the dark, dark book. This is not so much a discussion of craft as one of philosophy: how should you look at life? What gets you through? But also, talking about stories is one of the ways we talk to each other. What we talk about when we talk about stories is what matters most to us.
In “The Naturals,” Lipsyte says: life is full of love and death. And we’re so-so at both, and occasionally we’re god-awful, and occasionally we’re great. In talking about Thomas McGuane’s “Hubcaps,” I remarked that a couple of his characters chose love. But that was a dark, dark story, and we weren’t sure how McGuane’s boy would survive, even if a couple of people showed him love when his own parents didn’t. Lipsyte is more hopeful than that. In “The Naturals,” people are broken, limited, silly, and selfish, but they also redeem themselves with surprising, right, natural, wacky, wonderful acts of love.
Lipsyte makes a point of this. A guy Caperton meets on the airplane, a pro-wrestler named “The Rough Beast of Jerusalem,” is love itself, pumped-up, turned-on, unacceptable, larger-than-life love.
I don’t want to overstate the point of the wrestler’s name. Lipsyte doesn’t. Lipsyte is moving so fast in this story that he doesn’t linger or overstate. But the bravery! The writer embraces the idea that even a crumbun deserves love, and crumbuns though we all are, foolish and selfish as we are, we sometimes find the means to give it. Though he does echo the idea that it’s a choice.
I love the way the writer uses being funny to bear the weight of this lyric idea. I also love the way he says that stories are part of how we survive.
What a great story. Lipsyte debates Yeats on the nature of the rough beast slouching toward Jerusalem. There’s a lot there to think about. But what craft — to be so real, so funny, so literary, so touching — in such a small space! What a great story.