So. I’m most of the way through Pocket Kings by Ted Heller, author of the classic Slab Rat. And I keep thinking: Ted Heller is the same as Sam Lipsyte. Do these two guys know each other? They’re both sons of famous writers (OK, Heller’s dad is more famous than Lipsyte’s, but still). They write about the same character: an physically unattractive, mildly talented, borderline unethical shlub from New Jersey, a guy in his thirties or forties who goes through life powered by a witty resentment toward those who are more successful than him. A character who thinks a lot about his wife and about his friends his age, but never his parents or siblings. (A sort of opposite character from fellow Jerseyite Philip Roth / Nathan Zuckerman, whose characters tended to be attractive, suave, and eternally focused on the families of their childhoods. Indeed, the Heller/Lipsyte character is the sort of irritating pest who Roth/Zuckerman is always trying to shake off.)
It’s hard for me to see how Ted Heller and Sam Lipsyte can coexist in the same universe, but there you have it. One thing I don’t quite understand is the age difference: Lipsyte was born in 1968, which makes sense given the age of his characters, but Heller was born twelve years earlier, which makes him a decade or two older than the protagonist of Pocket Kings. That’s ok, of course—no requirement that an author write about people his or her own age—still, it’s a bit jarring to me to think about in the context of these particular authors, who seem so strongly identified with this particular character type.
One more thing. With their repeated discussions of failure, fear of failure, living with failure, etc., these books all seem to be about themselves, and their authors’ desire for success and fears of not succeeding.
Some works of art are about themselves. Vermeer making an incredibly detailed painting of a person doing some painstaking task. Titanic being the biggest movie of all time, about the biggest ship of all time. Primer being a low-budget, technically impressive movie about some people who build a low-budget time machine. Shakespeare with his characters talking about acting and plays. And the Heller/Lipsyte oeuvre.
I feel like a lot of these concerns are driven by economics. What with iphones and youtube and all these other entertainment options available, there’s not so much room for books. In Pocket Kings, Heller expresses lots of envy and resentment toward successful novelists such as Gary Shteyngart and everybody’s favorite punching bag, Jonathan Franzen—but, successful as these dudes are, I don’t see them as having the financial success or cultural influence of comparable authors in earlier generations. There’s less room at the top, or even at the middle.
And, as we’ve discussed before, it doesn’t do any help to professional writers that there are people like me around, publishing my writing every day on the internet for free.
Back to Pocket Kings. It’s not a perfect book. The author pushes a bit hard on the jokes at times. But it’s readable, and it connects to some deep ideas—or, at least, ideas that resonate deeply with me.
It’s giving nothing away to say that the book’s main character plays online poker as an escape from his dead-end life, and then he’s living two parallel lives, which intersect in various ways. He’s two different people! But this is true of so many of us, in different ways. We play different roles at home and at work. And, for that matter, when we read a novel, we’re entering a different world. Reading about this character’s distorted life made me question my own preference for reading books and communicating asynchronously (for example, by blogging, which is the ultimate in asynchronous communication, as I’m writing this in August to appear in January). Face-to-face communication can take effort! There must be a reason that so many people seem to live inside their phones. In that sense, Pocket Kings, published in 2012, was ahead of its time.