Three Thousand Dollars

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

As a collection of the first work of a young contemporary writer, David Lipsky’s Three Thousand Dollars generally succeeds in presenting a vivid artistic rendition of the experience of growing up, attending college, and leaving college in the northeastern United States in the 1980’s. Five of the stories center on the same character, Richard Freely, and the protagonists of the remaining stories might be described as fictional extensions of Freely’s personality—they are, in effect, variations on the same theme, and they live through the same experiences with which Richard is faced. Thus, even though the stories published in Three Thousand Dollars span Lipsky’s career as an emerging writer—the title story was republished in Best American Short Stories 1986 (1986)—there is a certain coherence to the collection.

Central to the stories about Richard Freely is the relationship between himself and his divorced mother, Joan, with whom the young boy decides to live. All five of these stories deal in one way or another with facing the problems dished out by contemporary American life, as mother and son try not to let things simply “slip by” in a fashion that would alienate them from each other.

In an unusual move, Lipsky decided to arrange in reverse chronological order the stories that cast spotlights on Richard’s growth from a television- and newsmagazine- obsessed boy of eleven to the seemingly smart college student of the title story. (In this story, which opens the collection, Richard tries to cash in on the divorce of his parents in order to cover up his squandering of the three thousand dollars sent by his father to pay for Richard’s college tuition.) In tune with this inverted temporal arrangement, Lipsky plays other tricks with continuity in what is perhaps an effort to call attention to the fictionality of his stories—their refusal to be straightforwardly autobiographical. Most strikingly, the character of Richard is named “Walter” in the final story, “Springs, 1977”; similarly, his artistic, jogging mother is a sculptor in “Answers” and a struggling painter in “‘Shh.’” Though somewhat mannered, these maneuvers nevertheless indicate an attempt at universalizing Richard’s experience and a refusal to streamline what are, after all, not chapters of a novel but relatively independent stories. Further, these variations highlight the reader’s sense of the essentially collective experience of all Lipsky’s characters, who embody an experience very specific in time, space, and social milieu.

If it is true that the idea of communication has become a central topic in postmodern American literature, especially since Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Lipsky’s stories certainly are topical in addressing this theme. Throughout Three Thousand Dollars, much narrative attention and energy are bestowed upon fine-tuned observation and rendition of all forms of interpersonal communication, ranging from almost imperceptible body signals—the stance of a hostile gallery owner in “‘Shh,’” for example—to the classic “heart-to-heart” talk in which so many of Lipsky’s characters engage at crucial moments in the stories, to the outer ends of telecommunication.

Common to all the stories about Richard is a desire to abolish difficult or potentially threatening contacts—contacts that the characters nevertheless must acknowledge in order to face the challenges that their decisions have created in their lives and to regain their moral liberty. Thus, Richard is eventually to read the letters his father writes to him while the boy is spending his first vacation with his mother after the divorce, despite Joan’s fears about such a ghostly intrusion. A few years later, in “Answers,” he finally has to pick up the telephone to speak with his father about Richard’s having left him in California and fled to his mother in New York City. A fine story, “Answers” underlines the general concerns of “Three Thousand Dollars.”

The awakening of sexuality is similarly sewn into a story about communication and denial. In “Near Edgartown,” the seemingly asexual presentation of a girl’s sunburned body—her excuse for asking the boys a favor—becomes a signal inviting a different...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, July 1, 1989, p. 944.

National Review. XLI, September 29, 1989, p. 62.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, July 21, 1989, p. 51.

The Wall Street Journal. August 30, 1989, p. A8.