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'Hark' review: Sam Lipsyte satire of motivational speakers is witty but meandering

Sam Lipsyte, author of "Hark"

Sam Lipsyte, author of "Hark" Photo Credit: Ceridwen Morris

HARK, by Sam Lipsyte. Simon & Schuster, 284 pp., $27. 

How do you tell a genuine guru from a fake? It’s easy to say that one dispenses wisdom, the other hogwash. But the difference isn’t always obvious. A devotee swears by the gnomic truths she hears, while a skeptic can only snicker.

Writers and comedians have more fun with fakers than fakirs. Witness “Being There,” the 1979 movie, based on Jerzy Kosinki’s novel, in which Peter Sellers portrayed a gardener whose facile, empty pronouncements propel him into high-profile punditry. In YouTube videos today, JP  Sears sends up New Age hokum with droll deadpan.

In his latest novel, “Hark,” Sam Lipsyte, whose hilarious “The Ask” made the fundraiser’s pitch seem like a carnival barker’s come-on, pivots to the dubious world of motivational speakers.  

Hark Morner — his real name — morphs from being a not-ready-for-prime time stand-up comic to the inspirational big time via a technique he calls Mental Archery. The gimmick? He urges people to focus, using archers’ yoga-like poses: Persian Rain, Priapic Centaur, Cantering Hun and so on. What are they focusing on? It’s up to them.

“One aims at the future, but not a static future,” Hark exhorts. “One shoots where the stag, the target, one’s chance for fulfillment, are about to disappear.…[If] you grow silent, easeful, the body will launch the spirit’s shaft true.”

Clear or not, that mantra, spread by Hark’s speeches, videos and podcasts, eventually gains millions of followers. In Lipsyte’s rendering, the messenger himself remains amorphous and murky while his promotional team takes center stage. Heiress Kate Rumpler provides the dough, Teal Baker-Cassini the intellect.

Despite, or maybe because he’s a pitiful nebbish, Fraz Pensig emerges as the book’s central character. He’s a laid-off teacher dependent on his wife Tovah’s earnings and the love of his bratty 8-year-old twins. Hungering for meaning and self-worth, he plunges into the movement. Aiming his arrows toward transformation, he ends up shooting himself in the foot.

Lipsyte’s witty dialogue provokes plenty of chuckles, though the Pensig twins do sound more like teenage wiseacres than grammar schoolers. His satirical potshots, sprayed toward vast arenas of contemporary life, are consistently on target. Digital distraction, video game violence, psychotherapy, child-rearing anxieties, writers’ workshops, chic restaurants (“Thai-Irish fusion” anyone?) — they’re all subject to the author’s corrosive scorn.

For all the larky humor, though, one wishes that the plot moved with more dispatch. One senses that Lipsyte wasn’t certain where to take his story. We’re pretty sure that all will not end well for Hark and company, but the story takes its time to get there.

Lipsyte’s subplots try to sustain our interest. Fraz and Tovah, whose marriage is shaky, begin couples counseling under Teal’s unprofessional tutelage. A restless Tovah has an affair with a tech tycoon. Due to Fraz’s negligence, the Pensigs’ daughter Lisa is injured in an accident and falls into a coma. But these are sideshows to the main drama of Hark’s rise to eminence, which may have been another kind of accident. When his stand-up shtick “was no longer funny, it became profound.”

Yet Hark consistently protests to his intimates that he’s no miracle worker, that Mental Archery cannot guarantee success or happiness. Still, he goes along for the endorphin thrill of the ride. Eventually, he confesses his shortcomings, loudly and clearly, to the world. His devotees, of course, continue to believe more than he does.

We don’t need to like fictional characters to find them fascinating. Nor do characters in comic novels need to attain the rounded features of those in other novels. But I did hope to care as much about Lipsyte’s people as I admired his deft satire.

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