Hangover by Benjamin Lipman. Missing Link Press, 2014.
Review by Andrew Martinez
If the state of intoxication is understood as the peak of excitement and joy, then, in equal measure, the subsequent hangover can be understood a sort of groggy awakening to the reality of life. It is the valley following the peak; the rude awakening that the high, your intoxicated self cannot change the dull monotony of life that awaits in the morning.
Benjamin Lipman seeks to capture these feelings and more in his collection of short stories, Hangover. Each of the five stories shares key plot devices: there is a “lost love,” the hints of alcoholism, and a combination of loneliness and sexual frustration that pervades each of the stories in this collection.
Much like a hangover, Lipman’s book starts in a groggy delirium, and works itself towards more coherent and concrete ideas. In seeking to do too much, the opening story, “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” ends up doing nothing at all. The opening paragraphs inform the reader that, “Loring Park Neighborhood was now also the new home of drugs and prostitution.” Instead of following this theme, Lipman walks us through various episodes in the unnamed narrator’s life: a phone conversation with a friend, a fit of rage, drinking, and a visit with his brother. All of these stories give an interesting glimpse into the boredom and discontent that can plague much of life, as the narrator says, “The longer we stayed connected on the phone, the more disconnected I felt from him…my best friend falling away from me just like all the best things.” This quote, and others, strike a poignant tone in the story and allow all who have ever felt disappointment to relate deeply with the character.
These episodes, however, never quite live up to their potential. Each episode feels rushed, and never quite creates a greater meaning for the story. At the end, when the reader finally sees the corruption of this place through drugs and prostitution, it feels like an add-on to a different piece, instead of the focus of this story itself. While the themes and ideas are all in place, Lipman falters by trying to cram too much into one story.
In fact, it is not simply the first story that suffers from trying to accomplish too many things at once. Though chock-full of ideas and interesting themes, the stories rarely let the reader discover these themes by themselves, instead opting for a plethora of themes presented rather heavy-handedly with quotes such as, “Do all living things coexist because the other has something they want?”
However, Lipman excels in his descriptions of the lonely disconnectedness and alcoholism that grip the narrator in each story. In “The Television,” his final and best story, Lipman writes,
Inside the VCR the previous owner had left a tape. I ejected it and looked at the title. Jackhammer. It was definitely a porn flick. I could feel my penis tingle as I imagined the Jackhammer hammering through naked ladies, so many naked ladies. A different one for each night of the week.
Here, and elsewhere, Lipman perfectly nails the idea of loneliness and sexual frustration through the actions and thoughts of his character.
Additionally, Lipman appropriately characterizes aspects of the Upper Midwest—a place teeming with those who wish they could leave, suffering through boring and dissatisfying jobs and lives, and yet finding themselves unable and unmotivated to leave. In this feeling of dissatisfaction Hangover succeeds. Whether the loneliness be exemplified through a mistaken sense of attractions, as in, “Boys Night Out” or in the pitiful proposition of a prostitute in “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” it becomes immediately clear that these characters represent a particular lifestyle familiar to all people, not simply the social outcasts such as prostitutes.
Loneliness is exemplified in the idea of a lost love that runs through nearly all of the stories. Little information is given about this lost love other than that the loss has left the narrator reeling and searching for comfort in all the wrong places. Like other aspect of the stories, the lost love feels like a good idea with a great possibility for a poignant effect, but comes up flat due to the overly clichéd ways in which it is incorporated into the stories. This is exemplified by the letter the narrator writes to his lost love in, “Go Fuck Yourself.” Here, the entire letter feels unnatural and more like something out of a movie than something which belongs in these gritty stories that deal with love, loss, disappointment, and frustration.
Instead, the pain of loss is understood much more clearly in “What Do You Do for Fun?” In this story, we see the narrator being tucked into bed by two beautiful women and begging them to “leave [him] a message, anything, just something to think about in the morning.” Here the loneliness and the disappointment ring through as two beautiful women leave him alone with his bed and his thoughts. All the narrator is left with is a cryptic message and an empty bed—the signs of an opportunity once had and now lost.
With moments like these and plenty more, Hangover will strike a chord with anyone who has ever suffered heartbreak and disappointment. It offers an intriguing glimpse into the after-effects of shattered dreams and crushed hopes. In place of hopes and dreams, there lies frustration and anger. These poignant themes are entirely relevant and engaging. However, Lipman would have done well to let his characters, settings, and stories speak for themselves. There is certainly enough here to merit reading; Lipman has crafted interesting characters and given them very real emotion. Unfortunately, some of these moments are hidden in rushed themes and convoluted moments of exposition. The potential is there, and, like shaking off a hangover, this work offers the hope that the next time will be even more glorious and even better than the last. Perhaps this time there will be no let down. I can genuinely say I look forward to the next time.
Andrew Martinez is a senior Religious Studies major at Carroll University. After graduating in the spring, he plans to pursue graduate studies in the Religious Studies and Philosophy field with an emphasis on modern understandings of religion and how these interact with pop culture and literature.