Memory serves: Nate Lippens' 'My Dead Book'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday February 1, 2022
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author Nate Lippens
author Nate Lippens

If the best things come in small packages, then My Dead Book, the diminutive chapbook by author Nate Lippens should pack a punch, and it certainly does.

The twelfth book in the publisher's Fellow Travelers series, this novel clocks in at less than 150 pages and can easily fit into your back pocket. But don't let appearances fool you. This fictional excavation of a man's past through the dead friends and lovers he'd managed to survive is worth the ride. The result is a searing memorable work of literary art for readers of a certain age who can attest to sharing the same emotions as Lippens' unnamed narrator.

The short novel is constructed through the assembly of paragraphs and sections pieced together to reflect its theme: that once something is lost or disappears, those who have lost them remain behind to pick up the pieces, carry on, and say so long. The devastating progression of this process can be such an emotionally crushing ordeal, it often informs ones future perspectives on love and our own disposability. Much like the narrator of Lippens' novel.

The protagonist here establishes himself early and quite clearly beginning with a brisk description of his youth as a teenaged male prostitute working the porn arcades and parking lots scattered across New York City while his roommate stuck to random hotels downtown. This takes place during the Jeffrey Dahmer murder years, so tensions on the streets for gays were taut.

But the narrator is more concerned with making money (with his mouth) than being a stand-in pallbearer for an acquaintance's funeral because "AIDS had already killed most of his friends" or being accosted by Jesus freaks on the boulevard, rationalizing "We aren't damned because we don't believe in hokey shit like sin and God."

The first section is saturated with the death of his friends, which is mostly gloomy except for the random glimmer of humor, as when cleaning out a friend's apartment and finding a box of his sex toys with a note, "If I died, throw this out. Trust me."

Though the order of these shuffled memories is non-chronological (which can be intermittently irritating), that fact doesn't diminish their impact or importance to the whole of what Lippens is trying to achieve. It's a fictional life story told through the yellowed scrapbook Polaroids of a former hustler who survived long enough to look back and savor them.

There are decades of regret, carelessness, senseless sex with men for money, and sadness over the scourge of AIDS or the suicides of friends, but there's also the ecstasy of being young, a free bird in a city full of exquisite danger and the relatability in sharing the same experiences as those friends who came before him.

As the book progresses, the narrator sprinkles in contemporary impressions of himself now as a middle-aged man living back in his home state of Wisconsin, grousing over his age, his face, and how —through the years being wedged into forced conversations about mortality with naked old men— he'd become "attuned to the performance of listening."

It is in these moments when Lippens excels the most, since hindsight affords one keen vision and the wisdom of scholars.

Experiences with friends find him spurting out diatribes about why older men are the way they are, which amounts to "mini-festo" statements like "Now we're older and there's this daddy culture. It's stupid. I'm a fucking daddy. Me. It's stupid. And it's all accelerated by apps. We're all living like sex tourists through our phones."

But he also languishes in the pleasure of having outlived his family, namely his mother, who, in his early years after discovering he was gay, chastised him and "choked on her fury" screaming "It's God's punishment! You'll get AIDS!" He gets even, writing, "I'm still here and she's dead. Cancer is a motherfucker."

These musings open him up even more to discuss how far the gay rights movement has come and onward to further reflections on the making of a man from the shards of a boy cast out of his family home and into the streets to fend for himself.

So many of us can relate to this sentiment in spades, and for those who cannot, there is this book and the lessons it teaches us about looking back to appreciate the way forward.

My Dead Book by Nate Lippens $15

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