Ask Sam Lipsyte about his memories growing up in Closter, and he describes a life that sounds very Huckleberry Finn-ish.
“I lived on Knickerbocker Road near the Oradell Reservoir,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “One of my best friends was the kid who lived next door, and we’d go fishing in the reservoir early in the morning. On the weekends, we’d have to crawl under this fence, and sometimes we were chased by the reservoir cops, as we called them. I guess they were security guards. But we’d have a wonderful time fishing for carp and other things in the reservoir.
“I loved hanging out at the Closter public library. I loved playing touch football in Memorial Park with my friends, riding around on my bike, hanging out at Burger King.”
Ironically, this trip down memory lane is precipitated by something new — Mr. Lipsyte’s latest novel, “No One Left to Come Looking for You.” The New York Times called it “very smart and very funny, a slangy, brainy, expletive-laden occasionally touching pleasure to read from the first page to the last.”
And, as we shall see, its roots also are firmly planted in the past. Where we now return.
Mr. Lipsyte, 55, grew up in a secular house. His father, Robert, a highly regarded sports writer and columnist for the New York Times and author, was kind of a minor local celebrity — but apparently that didn’t provide residual benefits to his son.
“It didn’t really impact my life,” Sam Lipsyte said. “I do remember a kid in my class running up to me one day, very excited. He’d been watching a TV show with [sports journalist and announcer] Howard Cosell, and Cosell had mentioned my father.
“And that had somehow conferred some celebrity on me. And that was exciting. That was the only time it impacted me.
In fact, the one time Sam tried to take advantage of his relationship with his dad, it ended in disappointment.
“I remember once in eighth grade I thought I was being very clever, and I did a book report on one of my father’s young adult novels,” he said. “The thing is that I thought it would be an easy A. I think I ended up getting a B-minus.”
As it turns out, the road to literary success, like the road to an easy A, can be messy. “I don’t think anything was set in stone,” Mr. Lipsyte says about childhood thoughts of becoming a writer.
“I was interested in writing from an early age. But I also was interested in some other things and pursued some of those things and came back to writing later.”
His first book, “Venus Drive,” a collection of short stories, wasn’t published until he was 32, in 2000. “Before the first book, I wasn’t even sure I was writing a book,” he said. “I thought in the future I’d like to have books. But at the time I was just writing short stories and trying to place them in literary journals.”
The publisher of one of those journals, Open City, decided it also wanted to publish books. Its first was a poetry collection, and then it approached Mr. Lipsyte about his short stories, some of which had been published in the magazine.
“I didn’t have a full collection at the time,” Mr. Lipsyte recalled. “I had maybe half a short story collection. So then I went and took like six months to write more stories. It was a first book of short stories with a small press. There were no sales expectations. The hope is that it will get some critical attention — which it did — and get me to the next book.
“Once it was published, I started to dream about having a body of work.”
“Venus Drive” was published as a paperback original, which displeased Robert Lipsyte. “My father felt that someone’s first book should be in hard cover,” Sam Lipsyte said. “So in a very sweet gesture, he took the book to a printer and had one hard-bound copy made and gave it to me.”
There have been six books since, and while their subject matter differs, one thing they share is a wicked sense of humor.
“In No One Left,” Jonathan Liptek plays bass in a band named after excrement — as is the stage name he adopts. The band is reasonably successful in its milieu — early 1990s Alphabet City — though as a fan notes, Jonathan couldn’t care less about “notes and stuff.”
Jonathan’s drug-addicted bandmate steals his bass and disappears, and in the ensuing search he discovers real estate interests and crime lords are involved.
In addition to a mystery that has to be resolved, the book is full of lines that strike (at least my) funny bone. For example, Jonathan’s girlfriend “used to say I didn’t distract her with attractiveness.”
Did he ever consider a career as a comedian? “Yes, I like to crack jokes. And I think I’ve always cultivated a comic sensibility. I’ve written scripts and things that have been comedies. I think I work in the vein of comic fiction, or, you know, tragic comic fiction, or whatever you want to call it. But I didn’t ever want to be a stand-up comic. I did a bunch of acting when I was younger, and I realized that I wasn’t comfortable enough to pull that off.”
In addition to his writing, Mr. Lipsyte is an associate professor in Columbia University’s School of the Arts in the MFA writing program. It is a full-time gig, and it means that he does most of his writing over the summer. Which makes you wonder how he had time to research “No One Left.”
“I was living down there and playing in a rock band,” Mr. Lipsyte said.
So apparently he wasn’t completely uncomfortable on stage. “I was uncomfortable when I was acting in theater,” he explained. “When I was screaming on stage with a band behind me — you couldn’t really hear what I was saying — I was fine.”
You were the lead singer? “I was the lead screamer. I wouldn’t call it singing.”
And the band for which Prof. Lipsyte screamed? It was the Dung Beetles. Of course.