By Niall McArdle
Many years ago I worked as a fundraiser for a major arts centre. Every day I would sit with a list of names and phone numbers of potential donors, or “leads” if you prefer.
You know that annoying phone call you get just as you’re sitting down to dinner, asking if you would be interested in making a small donation to the Arts. That was me. I hated the job. Nobody likes asking for money, even if it is for something worthwhile like a new podium for the orchestra conductor to stand on.
I hated the job so much I was embarrassed to use my real name. Seamus Ogilvy was the pseudonym I adopted. I did okay at it. I wasn’t a rainmaker; I wasn’t one of those guys who could squeeze $10,000 out of someone over the phone. I think the most I ever got was about $200. If I had stayed at the job longer, of course, and done well, I probably would have eventually been given the good leads – the Glengarry Leads (they’re only for closers).
So I never got to call all the nice WASPS and well-to-do Jews who live in the nicer parts of the city, who every year gladly renew their membership, who believe in the arts and don’t need much arm-twisting to shake a few more dollars from their hands. I was given the dregs: people who lived in the outer, low-income boroughs; the people who don’t go to the symphony, the theatre or the ballet, but who five years ago bought a ticket to see Cats.
There was really only one decent thing about the place. I worked with a fellow called Mike Breen: Mike “The Machine” Breen shared my contempt of the work we were doing, and like me, compared the job to Glengarry Glen Ross. He and I would exchange smirks when the manager gave the team our daily pep-talk.
We had a script to go through (think Boiler Room or The Wolf of Wall Street) and we were trained never to take “no” for an answer. We had comebacks for everything.
Reluctant Donor: “I’ve given all I can give to charity this year.”
Seamus Ogilvy (in Mate, I feel your pain voice): “Sir, I understand your reluctance; these are tough times. And of course you know how in stringent times it’s always the Arts that suffer.”
Middle Management Type: “I just got laid off.”
Seamus Ogilvy (in Hey, I’m with you. The Fucking Man wins every time, eh? tone): “So you’re probably not looking at a major donation. I get that. Honestly, man, I do. I’m tightening the belt here too. I mean, Jesus, I’ve had to cut back on Starbucks myself. But hey, speaking of which, did you know that you could contribute say the cost of one Starbucks cappuccino every week, and that would put you at our starter patron level?”
Grieving Widower: “My wife died yesterday.”
Seamus Ogilvy (in sympathetic My darling old mum passed on last year tone): “Oh, I am so sorry. My sincere condolences. Have you considered maybe a donation in her loving memory? I know that you and [quickly look at page] Ethel attended the ballet frequently. This season’s ballet is going to be spectacular. I’m sure Ethel would have loved to see it, and with her name in the programme, it would be a way for her to still sort of be there, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it? … Please, call me Seamus.”
I was thinking about that job this week when I read Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, which I read as part of the 20 Books of Summer Challenge for 746 Books.
The Ask is a bitterly funny pitch-black comedy novel about lost dreams, growing up, growing old, and what it’s like to be always on the outside.
Milo Burke, once a promising artist (at least he thinks so), is a development officer at a mid-level University in New York City – “we often called it, with what we considered a certain panache, the Mediocre University at New York City” – one of those people whose job it is to separate millionaires from their money in the form of endowments and scholarships. He hates his job even more than I hated mine, and one day makes a dreadful politically incorrect faux-pas that results in him being let go. Some months later, though, he’s given the chance to win his job back if he can reel in a major “give” from Purdy, a billionaire, who just happens to be an old college roommate.
They’re not friends, and Milo doubts if they ever were, but he can’t afford to say ‘no’ to this member of the 1%. The two are both former cocaine users, but Purdy’s drug of choice these days is candy. The tycoon has an ask of his own, and Milo becomes a reluctant go-between for Purdy and a heroin-addicted double-amputee Iraq war veteran.
Our group raised funds and materials for the university’s arts programs. People paid vast sums so their spawn could take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk. Still, the sums didn’t quite do the trick. Not in the cutthroat world of arts education. Our job was to grovel for more money. We could always use more video cameras, more caulk, or a dance studio, or a gala for more groveling. The asks liked galas, openings, recitals, shows. They liked dinner with a famous filmmaker for them to fawn over or else dismiss as frivolous.
The novel is about many things: overly-concerned parents, crumbling marriages, reality television (there’s a marvellous bit where someone has a truly awful idea for a show where master-chefs cook a death-row inmate’s last meal: it would be called Dead Man Dining). The book is also about how America has lost its footing in the world.
America, said Horace, the office temp, was a run-down and demented pimp. Our republic’s whoremaster days were through. Whither that frost-nerved, diamond-fanged hustler who’d stormed Normandy, dick-smacked the Soviets, turned out such firm emerging market flesh? Now our nation slumped in the corner of the pool hall, some gummy coot with a pint of Mad Dog and soggy yellow eyes, just another mark for the juvenile wolves.
“We’re the bitches of the First World,” said Horace, his own eyes braziers of delight.
Ultimately, however, it’s about the one thing that all good American novels are about: class in the United States.
The prose is cynical, smart-ass, occasionally broadly funny, sometimes right on the nose. There are jokes about concentration camps, helicopter parenting, 9/11 conspiracies, hippyish day-care centres, terrible late 90s romantic comedies. Lapsed Jew Milo and his gentile wife, Maura, are “going through a rough patch” (a term that several characters in the book find a bit old-fashioned), and he suspects her of having an affair. Their son (the “half -Jewish” Bernie, uncircumcised, but still with a name that’s destined him “to grow up to be an accountant”) is a four-year-old hellion, endlessly inquisitive, with a penchant for biting his classmate’s crotch.
Milo is a fairly detestable protagonist, something that he (and Lipsyte) acknowledge:
“I’m not very likable, am I?”
“You’re likable enough.”
“No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or a movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?”
“I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can’t think of anyone who would. There’s no reason for it.”
Lipsyte’s smart-ass asides do not distract, though, from the heart of this book, which has, er, heart. There is a real warmth here in the relationship between father and son, and real pain in the relationship between husband and wife. This is a clever, funny, and ultimately melancholy novel.
Verdict: Four Sugary Candies Out of Five