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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
APRIL 11, 2006
Based on recommendations of friends and the out-loud laughing of subway riders with their noses buried in Lipsyte’s book, I’d been itching to read Home Land for a while now. A few months ago, I even zipped into a Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy for myself. After flipping through it, however, and getting pummeled with this “Catamounts! Catamounts! Catamounts!” prose, I shelved it and went to look at the DVDs.

So when I found out I was to read it for the Tournament of Books, I was half hopeful and half cringing. But what it would take to get me fully cringing would be the epistolary of emails that open On Beauty. Zadie Smith may have written three novels, but has she ever composed an email? They just sounded…fake—all this clumsy exposition and obvious foreshadowing. Sure, people don’t continuously address each other as “Catamount,” either, but at least Lipsyte offers an explanation—though it’s a weak one, I’m afraid.

Thankfully, On Beauty eventually gets past this turbulence and settles into an engaging clip. The writing is gorgeous, for sure, and the plot unfolds in some genuinely unexpected ways. I was honestly in love with this book. But then it began to drag, and Smith tells us more about these characters than we will ever need to know—who’s an intellectual, who’s not, and how that makes them feel, really and truly, and over and over and over—that the plot halts and dies at midpoint. When Smith begins her lengthy introduction of a young student, Katherine (Katie) Armstrong, whose only purpose is to underscore the already re-re-reinforced point that her academic characters are dishonorable people. Her appearance lasts only five pages, yet I’m told her full class schedule. It was all so manipulative and aggravating that I fought through the remaining 200 pages only out of duty.
He wants me to believe in his world, and that’s
too good an offer to turn down—
especially when the other novelist vying for
my attention appears to have so little
regard for it.
Did I love Home Land? Oh, yes, I did, though I have a major complaint about it. All this “Catamounts” business? It’s a pretense about how the narrator is sending off-color updates to his high school alma mater’s newsletter. It’s irksome every time Lipsyte summons it, and the book would have been far stronger without it. Instead, it’s like the Yoko songs on Double Fantasy, and I for one can’t wait for some specially abridged edition.

But what happens between the bumps is utterly uproarious. These characters are drawn enough to tell the story here, and characters and story both are joyfully disturbed: an A.A. sponsor who’s also a drug dealer and thug who threatens addicts with violence; the narrator’s best friend, who gains and loses fortunes through accusations made during regression therapy. Everybody in Home Land is an anomaly in an everyday setting. So normal are these surroundings that it’s easy enough to feel like Lipsyte is drawing you right into the novel: Maybe none of us pan out?

And so, despite my complaints, I’ll go so far as to trust Lipsyte to know better than I do when it comes to high school newsletters and mountain cats. He wants me to believe in his world, and that’s too good an offer to turn down—especially when the other novelist vying for my attention appears to have so little regard for it. So while On Beauty left me high and dry, Home Land won me over so completely that I’m proud to say:

WAY TO GO Catamounts! And good luck in the finals!

The Peanut Gallery
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