The Blue Newt Faction

Sam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask, tells the story of Milo Burke, “a bald husband, a slope-bellied father” who has set aside his dream of becoming a painter to toil in the development office of a school he refers to as “The Mediocre University at New York City.” Early in the book, Milo gets fired for yelling at an obnoxious student whose father donated an observatory to Mediocre. The loss of his “good shitty job” strains both Milo’s finances and his relationship with his wife, Maura, with whom he has an almost-4-year-old son named Bernie.

The hand-scrawled sign over the door to the Happy Salamander preschool read: Closed indefinitely due to pedagogical conflicts. Please call 917 887 8884 for further information. Sincerely, The Blue Newt Faction.

“Fuck,” I said, a word I had made sincere efforts to purge from my repertoire of professed displeasure, at least in the presence of my son. It was 8:50 in the morning and Bernie and I were alone on an Astoria side street, not far from a sandwich shop that sold a sopressatta sub called “The Bypass.” I used to eat that sandwich weekly, wash it down with espresso soda, smoke a cigarette, go for a jog. Now I was too near the joke to order the sandwich, and my son’s preschool was in the throes of doctrinal schism.

“Fuck,” said Bernie. “Fuckwinky eyeballhead.”

“No, Bernie. We don’t use those words.”

“Which words?”

“You know which words.”

“You used them, Daddy.”

“I made a mistake. I am sorry I said that word. It isn’t helping with our problem.”

“What’s our problem?”

“There may be no school today.”

“That’s okay,” said Bernie. “It’ll be okay.”

We weren’t sure where he had picked up that becalming phrase, probably from us, as we tried to talk ourselves out of the awful lucidity certain days afforded. The whole mirthless dwindle of things would suddenly pull into focus, the crabbed, moneyless exhaustion that stood in for our lives, and Maura and I would both start the chatter, the cheap pep: It’s okay, it’s going to be okay, we’ll get through this. When Bernie repeated these bromides he sounded 73 years old. It broke your heart, as did about 43 percent of the things Bernie said and did. About 27 percent of the things he did made you want to scream and banish him to his childproofed room, or do much more heinous and ingenious things, just so he’d get the point, whatever the point could be with an almost-4-year-old, but still, to bury him alive and then save him at the last minute, or tell him that the state had passed a law against ice cream and he would go to prison if he even thought about it, because they now had the technology to detect illegal mint chocolate chip cogitation, had, in fact, the chips for it, seemed, if not conducive to his development, at least on some level deserved. Thirty percent of what Bernie said and did was either on the bubble or else utterly inscrutable, just the jolts and stutters of a factory-fresh brain working out the kinks.

“Pedagogical conflicts?” said a voice behind me. Aiden’s mother stood with her boy, her red bun blazing in sunlight.

She was sky-charged and goddessy in her pantsuit.

“I know,” I said, “like, what the hey?”

I was glad I’d remembered to shucksify my vocabulary in the company of children. I hoped it imparted the care with which I could also create a fluttery motion with my tongue around Aiden’s mother’s bunghole. I was falling in love with her on the spot, on the sidewalk. I wasn’t even an ass man, or ass person. I liked breasts, and the word “burgundy.”

It must have been the way she’d said “pedagogical.”

“It’s a bunch of baloney,” said Aiden’s mother.

You could tell she was sassy, the skeptical sort. She had opinions. She’d be the first to tell you she had opinions.

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