It is the type of realization that, even though it isn’t noticed yet, is still all around. It is there at the repetitive motions of the morning commute to the office and PM rush back home. The numbing sameness of cubicle farms. The ever hovering tinge of incompetence measured with an inability to make a difference. It follows you around for the longest time. On the tip of your tongue, just beyond the grasp of your fingers.
Then one day, something – maybe the broken down elevators, the idle chit chat that passes the day or having the same conversation for the 100th time, the lightning strike hits its mark. The life you expected to be living when you daydreamed in high school, college, or even your first day at the job is just that – a fantasy.
This is where Milo Burke, the lead character in Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask,” finds himself at the beginning of the novel. The rest of the story is set into place when Burke, a less than successful development officer at a Manhattan college, blows up at an impetuous student whose father is a major donor at the school.
Burke’s issues at work stem from his inability to succeed in the ask. See, the ask is that ability some of us have to get what we want from others, the givers. Burke’s gets are either non-existent or would be better off not having been gotten.
This wasn’t the way it was suppose to be for Milo. At college, having left his philandering father and distant mother, he focused on painting, hoping to make it big in the art world. The reality was far less auspicious. His circle of friends, including their leader Purdy, spent their time getting high, drunk, and talking about esoteric and obtuse theories.
It is Purdy, who was always filthy rich, who has a job for Milo after his termination from the university. It is the biggest Ask of his career. I won’t reveal the details since they play an important role in Lipsyte’s story. I recommend this book to anyone looking for a fast, but deep read that keeps you thinking and on your toes throughout the entire book.
Milo Burke has his family struggles. His wife may or may not be cheating on him, his young son’s school is in the midst of a pedagogical brouhaha. And obviously, he is unemployed which is a definite downer, but to me, the saddest part of this fictional Astoria resident’s life is his unfulfilled artistic dreams.
As a child growing up, for most of us who have this dream, the hope of becoming a professional sports star fades quickly. Statistics like batting average, ERA, WHIP, OBP all give you a sense of how skilled you are in a very objective fashion. Certain basic abilities and comprehension of fundamentals separate the wanna-be folks from the truly capable. In art, the sheer objectiveness of it all can be haunting to those who are drawn to creating.
Certainly, there are those whose talent is immediately evident. The virtuoso whose output is consistently great. But what about the rest? Those who have some skills or talent. Or even worse, someone who found themselves in a unique place and time that can’t be recaptured, put it all together for one great piece of work. The spectrum of those who toil is wide. Milo’s inability to garner any acclaim or reknown hovers over him as his work-to-pay-the-bills-job and personal life crumble.
How much do the youthful dreams haunt our adulthood? Do those early failures stay with us as we make our way through the world? The flip answer is yes, the patronizing answer is that all failures help us become better people. The truth, probably, is in the middle. Lessons are learned from teachable moments, but the lingering possibility of repeating those mistakes can slow us in seizing opportunities. Slower to demand the give our ask needs. Slower to make the ask at all. Thank goodness, Milo Buke is just a fictional character, right?