NO ONE LEFT TO COME LOOKING FOR YOU, by Sam Lipsyte
When a well-regarded author of so-called literary fiction puts out a novel with a pulpy plot — a missing friend, a greedy real estate developer, a ragtag team of unlikely sleuths — some might suspect the author of chasing a mass audience. I might suspect it myself; and so, I think, might Jonathan Liptak, a.k.a. Jack Shit, the punk rocker at the center of Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, “No One Left to Come Looking for You.”
Then again, maybe the Gen X lineage that Jack and I share has made us too suspicious. Because “No One Left to Come Looking for You” — while admittedly addictive and fun (“hooky,” as Jack might say) — is no one’s idea of a formulaic book, unless the formula is to write one original and unpretentious and funny sentence after another.
The book is set in 1993. Jack is the bassist in a band that’s ensconced in a boisterous if not quite thriving downtown scene. (In the course of the novel, Jack and his friends travel north of 14th Street exactly once — it doesn’t go well.)
The band is moderately successful: Sour Mash magazine has said they have a “scabrous, intermittently witty, post-skronk propulsion not unlike early Anal Gnosis.” Still, when the book opens, they seem to have exactly one upcoming gig, for which they’ll be paid 13 percent of the door. Jack expects 25 people to show up, at $5 a head. That amounts to $16.25 — to be split, one presumes, among the four members of the band.
So what? Jack is devoted not to money or commerce but “to hard, spare modes of sonic expression, to the perpetuation and refinement of a radical stance vis-à-vis the rock mainstream, and to my personal dream of seriously bitching out on my bass guitar before an assembly of my punk and post-punk and art noise near-wave peers.”
Besides, the band has problems more pressing than relative poverty (rent is cheap in 1990s Alphabet City). Their lead singer, known as the Earl, is increasingly in the thrall of a heroin habit. Hera, his girlfriend and the band’s drummer, has dumped him and ditched the band. Then the Earl steals Jack’s bass, hoping to sell it for a fix. Jack doesn’t particularly begrudge the Earl for this — addiction’s a bear — but when the Earl fails to reappear, with or without the bass, Jack grows worried and goes out looking for him.
As a first-person narrator, Jack is exceptionally winning, combining Lipsyte’s characteristic Falstaffian wit — playful, biting, verbally dexterous — with a sweet-natured and lovably pure, yet un-self-serious and only slightly doofus-y personality. Here’s some of his inner monologue as he reflects on a former bandmate and mentor whose “nom de rock” is Toad Molotov, and who once rejected a song of Jack’s as “too obvious”: “This from the man who wrote ‘Intercontinental Ballistic Butt Plug (in Caspar Weinberger’s Butt).’ Still, he had a point. Protest songs are not my strong suit. I may not have a strong suit.”
Lipsyte’s depiction of Jack’s milieu is a delight. The “anarcho-bewildered” Toad, as one character describes him, was an original member of a band called the Annihilation of the Soft Left, or TAOTSL: “One of the most ancient bands on the scene, bitter elder statesmen (and, occasionally, stateswomen) who’d paid their dues back in the grimy agon of the ’80s, when squatter blood dripped off cop batons in Tompkins Square Park and the crooked political pimps of the broken city sold New York’s ass block by block to … real estate barons. Or at least that’s how the band’s songs explained it.”
As is typical in any artistic scene with an elder statesman hanging around, Jack and his bandmates define themselves against TAOTSL. Politically speaking, Jack says, his band is “pretty left-wing, I guess, but our irony smothers our politics.” The Earl in particular “gravitated toward some slacker-Byronic ideal.” Toad had once sought “to politicize the Earl, activate him for revolutionist chaos, but that was a doomed dream. The Earl was too much the soul pirate, a rover upon womb-warm seas of introspection. That’s why the dope suited him.”
No scene can exist without petty and not-so-petty jealousies. After Hera leaves the band, she begins playing in a duo with a guy named Wallach. Jack describes Wallach as “a conservatory graduate, one of those smug skill-bullies, a music reader.” Meanwhile, Jack’s last girlfriend dumped him for the drummer of a band called Mongoose Civique, whose sound Jack describes as “deft, quasi-heavy, hooky in that anti-hook manner, a sort of frat-house Nirvana, or maybe, given the shimmering innocence of their lyrics, which tend to exalt bubble-gum kisses and cold mountain starlight, more of a treehouse Nirvana.” When Jack learns that Mongoose has been signed by a major label, he notes that “certain truths, like the fact that in this twisted world it’s the charlatans who emerge victorious, still hurt.”
As the search for the Earl heats up, Hera and Cutwolf, the band’s guitarist, join in. Our ragtag gang of detectives is thrown into contact with some of the crooked political pimps and real estate barons that TAOTSL sang about as they attempt to bring the bad guys to justice. At moments, it’s hard not to think of “Scooby-Doo,” even if the characters on “Scooby-Doo” never had exchanges like this:
“You were always a naïve one.”
“Really? But I’m the only one who’s read Baudrillard.”
With its straightforward — if kooky — plot, “No One Left to Come Looking for You” is a bit of a departure for Lipsyte. His breakout novel, 2004’s “Home Land,” purported to be a series of updates to a high school alumni magazine, written by a downwardly mobile alumnus. Heavy on incident, “Home Land” was also short on actual plot; it was powered instead by its bleak portrayal of middle-class suburban life. From today’s vantage, the book seems like one of the last relics of the long postwar era, that halcyon period — give or take a terrorist attack or two — when literary novels’ most ubiquitous boogeymen were consumerism and suburban malaise. Who knew, when “Home Land” was published, that those evils would soon be displaced in fiction by other sources of ambient anxiety: economic inequality, political decline, impending environmental catastrophe?
“The Ask,” Lipsyte’s 2010 novel, mined these “new” concerns to great effect, perhaps to better effect than any other novel of the period. Though the book had more plot than “Home Land,” the story competed for space and primacy with the thickets of social analysis. Its characters launched into hyper-articulate riffs about modern society as un-self-consciously as people in musicals burst into song. In contrast, Lipsyte’s semi-satirical 2019 novel “Hark,” about a self-help guru, took so many twists and turns that if you tried to chart the action, the result would look like one of those jangly lines produced by an EKG or a lie detector. The effect was less to get the reader deeply invested in the particular fates of Hark and his acolytes than to make broad points, about tech barons, left-wing terrorism, the ultra-wealthy, the lure of selling out, etc.
Compared with these books, “No One Left to Come Looking for You” is narrower in focus, concerned only with unspooling the story at hand. It proceeds smoothly, without any narrative bumps. The character who breaks into a spontaneous lecture at a dinner party is exactly the kind of person who would break out into a dinner party lecture. In this, “No One” has more in common with Lipsyte’s moody, character-driven short fiction, which frequently appears in magazines like The New Yorker and The Paris Review, than with his earlier novels.
Does this suggest “No One” is less ambitious? Maybe. In a sense. It doesn’t set out to diagnose all our political and social ills or make sense of our moment. It tells one small story and tells it well. But it’s also very smart and very funny, a slangy, brainy, expletive-laden, occasionally touching pleasure to read from the first page to the last.
Adelle Waldman is the author of the novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”
NO ONE LEFT TO COME LOOKING FOR YOU | By Sam Lipsyte | 210 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $26.99