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The Subject Steve

The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte
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The bad news was bad. I was dying. I was dying of something no one had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new.

The Subject Steve is a dark, dazzling, and totally original satire on human mortality and our desperate efforts to evade it. Meet Steve (not his real name), a Special Case, in truth a Terminal Case, and the eponymous antihero of Sam Lipsyte’s savagely funny first novel. Steve has been informed by his two doctors, the Philosopher and the Mechanic, that he is dying of a condition of unquestioned fatality but no discernible physical cause. Eager to brand a new plague with their names, they call it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome, or PREXIS for short.

The news that this perfectly ordinary postmodern citizen–bitter ex-husband, quasi-deadbeat father, midlife adman, creator of such resonant slogans as “Reality Is for Those Who Dream” and “How Did You Like Tomorrow?”–is dying of something that might well be boredom sets off a media frenzy. When his physicians are exposed as frauds, but not his death sentence, he betakes himself upstate to the Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption, founded and ruled by the shadowy and brutal caregiver Heinrich of Newark. From there he will travel to the desert, where the success of a cultish media empire will rest on his demise. But nothing will alter the Subject Steve’s inevitable rendezvous with those twin banes of humankind, death and synergy.

With the publication of this novel, by turns manic, ebullient and exquisitely deadpan, Sam Lipsyte enters the company of the master American satirists. It is a dark comedy for overlit times.
Broadway Books; February 2002
272 pages; ISBN 9780767911023
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Title: The Subject Steve
Author: Sam Lipsyte
Items #1

Bastards said they had some good news and some bad news.

"Stop," I said. "I've heard this joke before."

"What joke," said one of them, the Mechanic.

"He means that joke," said the other, the Philosopher. "That bit about the doctors. He thinks we're doctors."

"Aren't you?" I said.

They had white coats, their own wing.

"This ain't no joke, Jack," said the Mechanic.

My name's not Jack.

My name's not Steve, either, but we'll get to that.

"We have some good news and some bad news."

I can't remember what the good news was.

The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had ever died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough, I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. Nothing was enveloping me or eating away at me or brandishing itself towards some violence in my brain. There weren't any blocks or clots or seeps or leaks. My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn't up.

Fine fettle for a dead man, they said. Days, they said, months, maybe a year, maybe more than a year. It was difficult to calculate. Nobody had ever died of this before. By their calculations there could be no calculations.

"You'll have to live like the rest of us," the Philosopher told me. "Just less so."

"You mean more so," I said.

"No time for semantics," said the Mechanic. "You'd best get ready."

I readied myself for the period in which I'd have to get ready. I waited for the time during which I'd have to wait. I tied up loose ends, tidied up accounts, put my papers in order, called old friends. I didn't really have any papers.

I did have friends.

I had Cudahy.

I called Cudahy.

"I'm coming to see you," said Cudahy.

"Come soon," I said.

I called my ex-wife, nothing if not a loose end, or at least a bit of untidiness, what with all we had left unaccounted for.

"I knew you'd call," said Maryse. "I had a dream about you last week. You were walking through the pet food aisle at the supermarket and a kind of viscid bile was streaming down your chin."

"It wasn't a dream," I said. "I'm dying."

"I know, baby. I'm dying, too. But we've tried so many times already. We just have to learn to live with things the way things are. Things are not so bad. Truth be told, I'm not unfulfilled by William."

"William's a very good fellow," I said.

"He's not you," said my ex-wife, "but then again, you're not him."

William had once been my hero. Then he whisked away my wife. Now he was a very good fellow, a fucker, a thief. He deserved to die of whatever everybody had ever died of before, but with more agony, a heavier soiling of sheets.

"You may not hear from me again," I said.

"That's probably a wise choice," said Maryse.

"I don't think it's a choice," I said. "I'm really dying."

"Don't threaten me," said Maryse.

I quit my job, jammed a letter under my supervisor's door. He waved me in anyway. It appeared I had to interview for the right to quit.

"What kind of contribution do you feel you've made to the agency?" said my supervisor.

"I was quiet in my cube," I said. "I never fastened personal items with tape to the wall. I leered at female coworkers in the most unobtrusive manner possible. My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry. I never stinted on pastries for my team."

"What makes you think you're qualified to relinquish your present position?"

"All of the above," I said. "Plus the fact that I'm dying."

"Dying of what?" said my supervisor.

"It's new," I said.

Home, I threw away my watches, my clocks, my clock-radios. I kept my Jews of Jazz calendar up on the kitchen door. The knowledge of days was crucial, I decided, the marking of hours a mistake. I spread old photographs out on the coffee table, Scotch-taped a nice lifetime of say-cheese to the walls. Tacky, maybe, a mural like this, but what's tacky to the terminal? I studied the faces of all those friends and family and friends of the family. There they posed, on throw rugs, on sofas, in fields. Sitting or standing. Alone, in groups, in tandems, foregrounding fountains, friezes, pagodas, squares. Some of them were still living, others still dead. They had lived known lives, died, well, understandably. What I was dying of, I mused, nobody anywhere had a picture of somebody dead from it.

I mused this for a damn long while.

I mused this for almost a day.

I called up my daughter at the School for Disaffected Daughters. My ex-wife and I had agreed it was the best place for our Fiona to flourish and grow. We'd married out of school, Maryse and I, maybe just to be rebellious, fallen into factionhood the way rebels at rest will do. The worse things got, the more we cooed our devotion. Maybe our devotion was a blister we were waiting for the proper time to pop. I guess we wanted to see the pus.

"Fiona," I said, "I have some news."

"Don't tell me," she said.

"I have to tell you."

"Tell me later," she said. "I've got a lot on my plate."

"I'm going to tell you now."

I told my daughter I was dying of something no one had ever died of before.

"A rare disease?" she said. "Wow, that's wild."

"Not rare, Fiona. Mysterious. Rare would imply other sufferers. I'm the only one. Or at least the first. The pioneer. Think mud barns and locusts, rough cotton bonnets."

"I don't follow," said Fiona. "Do you feel sick? Is it some kind of therapeutic bonnet?"

"I feel fine," I said. "I'm in fine fettle for a dead man, in fact."

"Is that from a song?" said Fiona.

"Maybe it will be," I said. "Maybe I'll write a song."

"I've got to go," said Fiona. "I'll check in to see how you're doing."

"You mean to see if I'm dead."

I'd been a bad man. Bad hubby. Bad dad. Well, not bad. Less than bad, which was worse. But I'd paid for it. I mean, I was paying for it.

"Please, Daddy, don't say that," said Fiona. "What if this is the last time we speak?"

She hung up on me, on "speak." Typical of her disaffection. Typical of her disbelief. I figured she figured it all for a song or a game. What else is it when you're thirteen and test just shy of genius? When she has to pick the suit they bury me in, then she'll believe it. When she has to pick the urn they pour my burnt bones in.

Weekdays were clinic days. The Philosopher and the Mechanic wished to meet with me often as I was such a special case. Already my malady had begun to further their careers. They were collaborating on a book based loosely on my autopsy.

"You look amazing," said the Mechanic. "Doesn't he look amazing?"

"Luminous," said the Philosopher. "Luminous with this mysterious rot."

We sat on overstuffed sofas in the Special Cases Lounge. A man in black surgical scrubs brought us tea and lemon cake.

"Can I get a drink around here?"

"Not officially," said the Philosopher, "but here."

He plucked a bronze flask from his coat.

"Brandy?" I said, sniffing it.

"Cognac," said the Philosopher. "With a dash of methamphetamine."

"Tell us," said the Mechanic, "how are you coping with the emotional devastation of your predicament? How do you go on living knowing you are going to die?"

"How do you?" I said.

Both men nodded, made noises in their mouths, scribbled on the notepads in their laps.

"What?" I said. "What are you doing?"

"I don't know what he's doing," said the Philosopher. "I'm just jotting down some top-secret notes."

They were both bastards, but at certain moments I got the feeling the Philosopher was also a prick.

"Did you run those tests yet?" I said.

"Which tests would those be?" said the Mechanic.

"The ones you said you were going to run to get a better idea of how much time I had left."

"Have left," said the Mechanic. "You're not dead yet."

"Excuse me?" I said.

"Fascinating," said the Philosopher.

"We conducted the tests," said the Mechanic. "Frankly, they left us more baffled than before. Honestly, I can't tell you anything more than we've already told you. You're dying. You're dying quite quickly. The rest is a mystery better explored in our upcoming book."

"Your book," I said. "I don't give a rat's ass about your book. What about the cure?"

"Cure for what?" said the Mechanic.

"You know damn well it doesn't have a name," I said. "You're the ones who didn't name it."

"You see our problem," said the Philosopher. "Who's going to grant us the time, the money, the facilities to research a cure for a nameless ailment from which one person presently suffers? What are we going to do, mount gala events to raise funds for the Fight to Save Steve from Whatchamacallit? By the way, how's the hooch? The speed gives it a nice bite, right?"

"My name's not Steve."

"No, but my point stands."

"We need more clients," said the Mechanic. "Or patients, if you prefer. Until then, I don't know what to tell you. We'll do what we can."

"What's in our powers."

"Our purview."

"Our ken."

My daughter disaffected, my ex-wife whisked, me dying quite quickly of radically accelerated Whatchamacallit, I decided, here in the grips of aimless urgency, to sin.

By sin, I mean fun, harmless.

I got a deal on some pharmaceutical-grade cocaine from the Philosopher. The Mechanic gave me a phone number, instructed me to ask for either Greta or Clarice.

I got Greta.

Greta brought Clarice.

Both of them were tall and bony with bone-colored and ash-colored hair.

Both of them were professionally, abnormally delicious.

"Kiss the dead man!" I said, throwing off my robe. "Fondle his fettle!"

We passed some days this way, prancing, sucking, snorting, heaving, shrieking. We ordered in dinner, Indian, Chinese. Greta, an aspiring dramaturge, directed us in choice bits of Aristophanes. Clarice hand-tinted my knees for a ritual dance of our own device. We built cities with popsicle sticks, baked peanut brittle, fudge. We invented a game whereby each woman pissed down my throat and I, blindfolded, guessed by odor alone whose water it was.

Easy, what with Greta's penchant for wheatgrass juice.

When the sun rose on the last day Clarice shook me awake.

"Time to settle up," she said.

I figured it was money well spent. What's seventy-three thousand dollars to a guy with Whatchamacallit?

I sat there the rest of the morning wondering how to tell Fiona she was now officially a hardship case.

Then someone was knocking the knocker on my door.

"You'll feel better once they come up with a name for it," said Cudahy.

He stood in my kitchen and stirred his tea, an enormous man in a neon-flecked track suit.

He'd once captained the national shot-put team.

"I don't give a damn about the name," I said. "I just want to live."

"I want you to live, too, buddy," said Cudahy. "Believe me."

"I do believe you," I said.

Cudahy was my best and oldest friend. Best and boon. Maybe we'd drifted apart at times, I into the smoked-glass murk of corporate life, Cudahy into his far-flung entrepreneurial endeavors, which included a stint in foreign bride importation, but we'd never let the thread of our friendship snap. There was too much truth and not enough language between us for that.

We'd run the beet fields and subdivision lots of our boyhood together, slept under the yard stars, stolen off with the family whiskey into the wooded night. We'd scorched town birches with our homemade flamethrowers, burned out all the gypsy moth cocoons. Moth-O-Caust, we'd called it. We'd stood behind the toolshed and listened, amid the clatter of rake tines and paint tins, to our fathers make shuddering men of each other.

This last we'd never discussed.

"You know," said Cudahy now, "you should have called me after Maryse left. I could have gotten you a new missus for less than ten grand. Tits, an adorable accent. Grateful to be free of the emerging-market yoke."

"What's done is done," I said.

"That's the attitude," said Cudahy. "That's the attitude of a man who wants to live!"

"Don't saw the pine for me yet," I said.

"That's it, baby!" said Cudahy. "No pine, no crepe, no wreaths!"

He spun a hard orbit on the linoleum. Tea ribboned out of his cup. The cup shattered on the wall.

"Shit," said Cudahy.

"Nice put," I said.

Cudahy took the spare room, kicked in expenses from the fat roll in his track suit pocket. We cooked lavish meals from newspaper recipes--veal marsala, rack of lamb--played blackjack past midnight, watched old westerns on the VCR.

Every time there was shoot-out Cudahy would recount his own days of gunplay, usually some kind of pimp jump in the lime-colored corridors of a formerly Socialist apartment block.

"They got my driver Vlad in the head, point-blank," he said one night. "I figured I was a goner until I stumbled across a ventilation duct. Hard to believe I fit, but I did. And so here I am. And here you are. Death's luck goes south, too, you know. Hit me."

"I think the reaper's due for a run."

"Don't talk that way," said Cudahy. "This living and dying shit, it's all a matter of attitude. It's like you're at the Worlds with a couple of fouls and you need one clean put to qualify. The Swedish judge is gunning for you and you're thinking, 'I will stay in the circle, there is nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia.' "

"What are you talking about?"

"Say it: There's nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia."

"There's nothing for me outside the circle. Fuck Scandinavia."

"Exactly," said Cudahy. "Worked for me. I silvered. Then I got out of the shot-put racket for good. I mean, chucking a steel ball over and over again. For what? The travel, sure, but all in all it was a waste of time. And you know what else? When you're a great shot-putter, they hate you for it. They really do. Not true of, say, the discus. The discus-throwers have a feeling of community. They have that statue. Hit me. Fuck, busted."

When I phoned the clinic to confirm my next appointment, the Mechanic took the call himself.

"We've got some exciting news," he said. "A breakthrough. I can't tell you over the phone, though."

From the Hardcover edition.
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