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Book reviews: Mockery trumps despair 

It's hot, the Great Recession drags on, and statewide politics are dismal at best. We need laughter in a big way, right now. Here are two recent paperback releases that fit the bill — one is an odd look at modern life through the eyes of a smart but ineffective curmudgeon, and the other is a bio of one of the greatest American stand-up comics.

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Picador, 296 pages, $15).

When Lydia Millet, who is one of our favorite novelists, reviewed The Ask for the New York Times, she noted that "literary satire has become a rare form in America over the past three decades." Millet, whose work is both serious and richly satirical, is right. We won't spend much time here debating why serious American fiction has, in general, become cramped and self-important. Instead, we're celebrating the fact that some first-rate American novelists with sharp senses of humor are still being published, including Ms. Millet and the author of The Ask, Sam Lipsyte.

Lipsyte's protagonist, Milo Burke, is a not-very-good development officer for a mediocre university, which everyone in the development office naturally calls Mediocre U. (An "Ask" is what development officers call a potential donor, as well as the pitch the officers make to donors.) Milo is fired from his position, flounders awhile, and then is offered another chance at Mediocre U. when a potential donor specifically asks to be "pitched" by Milo. The donor turns out to be an old acquaintance, Purdy, who is now a tech multi-millionaire. Things only get worse for Milo, however, as Purdy routinely humiliates him, to the point of putting him in charge of Purdy's illegitimate son, a hot-tempered Iraq war amputee who spends his time stalking a former classmate/war-hero. Meanwhile, Milo's wife is openly adulterous (but still a good friend, of course), and his own son is obsessed by everything there is to know about penises.

Milo's full-tilt wallow in white-collar despair is not only tolerable, but incisive and hilarious, because he's a thoroughly contemporary despairing white-collar shmoe. Yes, he's powerless over much of his own life, but — unlike most satirical stories' main characters (Good Soldier Schweik, Don Quixote), Milo is very aware of what's going on, and not going right, in both his own life and society in general.

You could say I had experienced some technical difficulties. There had been bad times, years trickled off at jobs that purported to yield what superiors called, with true sadism, opportunities. Those yielded nothing, unless you consider bong slavery, a few bogus spiritual awakenings, and the unswerving belief I could run a small business from my home, opportune.

Milo's intelligent, sarcastic outlook is shared by his wife Maura and Purdy's angry-vet son Don. The humor is rampant and often vicious, even bitter, but it all works because, frankly, it reminds us of so many people we've known, working in dull offices, their irony and raised eyebrows serving as the only evidence of the deeper, and usually sadder, intelligence behind the smart-alecky remarks. That's quite a difficult thing for a writer to evince, but Lipsyte does it beautifully, movingly, and for 300 pages. Let's end with a final quote from Lydia Millet's review of the book: "As a result, Lipsyte is one of a handful of living American satirists (and when I say handful, I mean a very tiny hand, with three fingers at most, including the thumb)".

7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin by James Sullivan (Da Capo Press, 280 pages, $16).

When George Carlin died in 2008, lots of people who had grown up with the late comedian/writer/actor's sardonic worldview were stunned. It was as if they had realized too late how much Carlin meant to them. He had morphed from a successful comic into a counterculture icon in the 1970s, when his hilarious railing against conformity and constraints on freedom made him the obvious choice to host the very first Saturday Night Live.

In 2009, a kind of posthumous autobiography, Last Words, was published, compiled by Carlin's acquaintance Tony Hendra from tapes the comedian had recorded. In that book, Carlin spoke eloquently of his rough-and-tumble 1950s Brooklyn Catholic upbringing, and his long struggles to let his inner self emerge onstage. Last year, journalist James Sullivan published this more detailed look at Carlin's life, which helps fill in some of the gaps in the comedy legend's own version. Sullivan does a good job of presenting a linear rundown of the various incarnations Carlin went through in his 71 years. The author's writing won't win a lot of style points, but he's smart enough to let Carlin's story tell itself — and to put it in the context of how one man's inner growth matched the changes many people in America were going through at the same time.

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