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Gazing into life's cracked mirror The Fun Parts'

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Collection offers look at society's fringes and failures

Short fiction is relatively easy to write. Good short fiction, however, is quite difficult. Any writer can tell a story in a few thousand words. Telling a story that makes an impact and moves the reader in those same few thousand words is an art that many writers will never master.

Sam Lipsyte's newest book 'The Fun Parts' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $24) is that rare collection that carries that art forward into full bloom. It's a baker's dozen worth of postcards from the edge; each of the 13 stories is a glimpse at the people existing on the fringe. The characters populating Lipsyte's literary landscape aren't the sort that the reader is meant to love or even to like, to be truthful but they are brought to life with sharply-honed cleverness and furious glee.

In 'The Dungeon Master,' we're shown a group of Dungeons & Dragons players led by a game master who delights in punishing the participants, operating in a fantasy world ruled more by the mundane than the magical. The relationships illustrated show a group of young men struggling to deal with the tyrannical rule of a DM who may be irreparably broken.  In 'The Worm in Philly,' a young junkie is convinced that he can turn his life around if he can just write that children's book about 'Marvelous' Marvin Hagler. Instead, he finds himself thrust into the midst of a crumbling family a family that is not his own.

'Ode to Oldcorn' is an odd little snapshot of New Jersey high school shot-putters set in the mid-1980s. One young putter (not thrower  never thrower) learns that idols do fall; the legendary Oldcorn of the title proves to be less than legendarymore hedonist than hero. 'The Wisdom of the Doulas' watches a man try to game the system and convince the world that he is in fact a 'doulo' a male doula. His combination of self-delusion and ineptitude culminates in a surreal confrontation with his clients a confrontation involving nunchucks. 

The book's final story is perhaps the strongest. 'The Real-Ass Jumbo' introduces us to Gunderson, a spokesman for the apocalypse. After a drug-fueled encounter with a guru named Ramon which leads to an ongoing relationship with a machine elf named Baltran, Gunderson becomes the face of the world's end, heading a burgeoning empire of lectures, acolytes and reality shows. His personal life might be a shambles, but Gunderson is a true believerand true belief is good for business.

From the self-destructive confessional memoirist of 'Nate's Pain is Now' to the grudge-holding faux-intellectuals of 'This Appointment Occurs in the Past,' the protagonists of Lipsyte's stories live lives that are swirling around the drain things are bad now, but they are somehow going to get even worse. But he never celebrates or revels in their pain. He documents it with care and precision, but even at their absurd apexes, these stories never succumb to the temptation to exploit. Still, despite the deep-seated sadness, the laughs are plentiful in 'The Fun Parts' they might be painful laughs, but they are laughs nonetheless.

There's a hint of Wallace here, a whiff of Vonnegut there, hints of existentialism and nihilism sprinkled throughout Lipsyte's deftness with a turn of phrase blends harmoniously with biting wit and keen social observation to create microcosmic visions of sad, lonely lives. Within these extremes, the reader will be confronted with the quirks, concerns and even courage of Davids who will never defeat their Goliaths. And despite the inherent unlikeability of these underdogs, we are still forced to concede that in many ways, their journeys are our journeys and that in practical terms, every life's journey has the same ending.

'The Fun Parts' is a 13-course meal of delicious and devastating satire served up piping hot; each tale has its own unique taste, but the real pleasure is in the exquisitely combined flavors. It is a brilliantly-conceived, brilliantly-written collection from a uniquely talented writer.

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