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Money talks, and not very nicely, in 'The Ask'

THE ASK, by Sam Lipsyte. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 296 pp, $25.

You get fed up, you mouth off to the wrong person, you're out of a job. That covers the first chapter of "The Ask," Sam Lipsyte's funny, vicious fourth book.

The schnook with the mouth is Milo Burke, a (former) fundraiser in the development office of a New York City institution of higher learning he calls Mediocre University. The person he tongue-lashes is a snotty rich girl who happens to be the daughter of a major donor.

In "The Ask," money swaggers, bullies, throws its weight around. The world hasn't changed: "It's still the rulers and the ruled. The fleecers and the fleeced."

It's still, in other words, the America Fitzgerald crystallized in "The Great Gatsby," a neo-feudal nightmare where the rich get away with murder and everybody else cleans up after them.

Lipsyte, however, approaches his subject with something more tart - a lot more tart - than the rueful worldliness of Fitzgerald. He's much closer to the writer Céline: a venom spewer, although "spewer" doesn't do justice to the craft with which he spins his poison into some of the more elegantly vituperative paragraphs in contemporary fiction.

Years earlier, as a student painter, Milo had shown sparks of promise. They've long since been dashed under the cold baths of parenthood, alcohol and (possibly worse) the success of former classmates.

One of them is Purdy Stuart, born rich but now a baron of the Web in his own right. Purdy sets the plot in motion when he makes noises about a major donation to Milo's ex-employer (his wife is a grateful alumna of the arts program at Mediocre U.) so long as Milo brokers it.

Hence the title: "An ask could be a person, or what we wanted from that person. If they gave it to us, that was a give."

Purdy knows what a huge favor he's doing Milo - which means, of course, there are strings. The media baron has left a trail of damage, Tom Buchannan style, behind him, and he needs someone to clean it up.

If Lipsyte's satirical targets - reality TV, elite food fads, academic double talk (at both university and preschool levels) - are sometimes easy, the rage he tears into them with is still a thing to behold. Only once does he descend into cuteness:

Milo: "If I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?"

Milo's boss: "I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would."

I would, and I cackled through most of "The Ask," hoping Lipsyte would nourish his hatred ("I'm a hater's hater," Milo says) until "The Ask" sank all the way to Céline's depths of vileness.

It doesn't. It softens in the last quarter. It loses its bite.

But it still ends with a snarl.

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