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BOOK REVIEW : Marking the Potholes, Pitfalls for '80s Youth

December 22, 1989|ELAINE KENDALL

Three Thousand Dollars by David Lipsky (Summit Books: $18.95 218 pages).

When the author was the age of the narrator in "Shh," an English teacher must have told the class to write about what they knew.

Most students would have ignored the advice in favor of intergalactic fantasies and counterespionage adventures, but Lipsky obviously listened, becoming a published writer while still an undergraduate. Since then, he's produced increasingly ironic, subtle and poignant stories about the dilemmas of his generation, extending his range and scope with each one.

The teen-age narrator in "Shh," "Lights" and "Near Edgartown" is immediately recognizable in this new work as the 24-year-old ending a romance and starting a job that manages to be both entry-level and dead-end.

Still respecting the first law of fiction, Lipsky has produced a blistering account of a sojourn at a New England writers colony, conveying the exact feel of the false bonhomie among the inmates while focusing on the mental processes of the young writer who can't wait to escape from dystopia. This particular protagonist is a woman, but by now Lipsky seems equally at ease in both genders. In "Springs, 1977," the last story in the collection, he sounds absolutely convincing as a 39-year-old divorced mother during a tense, expensive summer at a fashionable Long Island resort.

The title story is a virtuoso variation on a fragile theme ideally suited to Lipsky's inventiveness. In the last crazy summer before college, the son of estranged parents blows the $3,000 contributed by his father for tuition. Beginning with a mere premise rather than a plot, the author succeeds in turning this frail situation into a story that not only defines the impact of divorce upon an adolescent, but thoroughly investigates and exposes the entire structure of his parents' wrecked marriage. In this human chess game, the pawn outlasts the major pieces to become a master manipulator.

Growing up with an artist mother provides the narrator of "Shh" with astonishing insights into the machinations of the New York art world. It also gives him a clear-eyed view of the anomalous position of a once-hot-now-cool painter in that mercurial milieu. Acting as buffer and guardian, he wonders and worries who will fill that role next year, when he leaves for college.

The most ambitious story is "Relativity," a marvelously adroit and corrosively funny examination of the human mix at a prestigious Ivy League university. All the players are here, suited up for battle: the passionate female semioticians in black obsessed "with the evil clockwork levers and gears behind the seemingly benevolent face of the world"; the bully who turns the residence hall into a war zone for the sheer hell of it; the preppie types who eagerly radicalize themselves into belligerent factions; the dean who tries to reason crises out of existence.

Finally the agonizing academic year is over, and the dean, "smiling merrily," says, "Well, I told you things would work out," blissfully unaware that they didn't, not by a long shot. The result is a story that does for academic life in the '8Os what "This Side of Paradise" did for the '20s.

Even before the youthful protagonists of these tales graduate from college, they're learning survival strategies. After they move into "the real world," the struggle intensifies. A narrator loses his girlfriend, who was "the closest I ever came to dating the sorts of girls I never dated," and then finds himself involved with her roommate, handed down as casually as a spare blender. A young man comes home to his first tacky apartment after a boring day in his dreary job, opens a beer, turns on the evening TV news and realizes he's just previewed the next five years of his life, unless he does something drastic and soon.

The author has taken a long look at the potholes and pitfalls along the road taken by his friends and classmates, and has posted warnings in the shape of these engaging and perceptive cautionary tales. Just by concentrating upon what he knows best, Lipsky has given his contemporaries a general autobiography, one that will fit the majority with only minor adjustments.

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