Book Review: No One Left to Come Looking for You by Sam Lipsyte

No One Left to Come Looking for You is a page-turning suspense novel that also serves as a love letter to a bygone era of New York City where young artists could still afford to chase their dreams. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Oh, the 1990s! A decade of excellent music, questionable fashion and–in this incisive fictionalization of the post-punk, quasi-grunge, anti-sellout scene rubbing shoulders with the moneyed in New York City–the origin of the fires that will fuel the earnest everyday heroes of our own more recent past in taking up the good fight against the seemingly unassailable.

Three decades ago, however, we had not heroes (or at least not yet heroes) but a band called The Shits, cobbled together, like so many others formed in musical meccas, by a sort of happenstance, a happy accident of who’s available and who vibes. Our young narrator is the bass player, who has recently changed his name to Jack Shit in a bold statement of belief in his band. His guitarist has adopted the moniker Cutwolf, bestowed upon him by their talismanic lead:

The Banished Earl is our front man, our lyricist and lead screamer. His brief includes but is not restricted to howls, whimpers, banshee shrieks, declamations, provocations, semi-ironic rooster struts, blind dives into the mosh pit, simulated or else revocable genital mutilation and, of course, spectacle. Spectacle above all else.

 

Though now that the Banished Earl is the Vanished Earl, all bets are off until I find him.

As the book starts, The Banished Earl has not only disappeared from the tiny apartment he shares with Jack, but has managed to abscond with the bass guitar that Jack needs in order to play. The Earl is, unfortunately, a drug addict who isn’t above selling his friends’ valuables in order to feed his habit. This has alienated his now ex-girlfriend, Hera, who is now also their ex-drummer, her break-up with the Earl happening at about the same time as her break-up with the band.

Jack doesn’t really hold the Earl’s weaknesses against him, but he does want to recover both his lead singer and his instrument before what could be a pivotal performance for The Shits’ career, if not outright existence. He also has to persuade Hera to ditch her new band (and boyfriend) for at least one evening, as he’s convinced that one transcendent performance is all she’ll need to see that she belongs with them at least musically, never mind her relationship with the Earl. As Jack sets off with Cutwolf on a sometimes comic odyssey through the New York City underground scene to achieve these aims, the two young men discover not only a dead body but a commitment to justice that they hadn’t known they had in them, as they refuse to let a killer get away with murder.

The amateur sleuthing is a terrific framework for this examination of not only what it means to pour yourself into a musical scene, but also what happens when both the idealism and ignorance of youth run head first into the cynicism and experience of the more established. Jack is the first to admit that, despite the members of his band all having done session work with the hoary radical icon of their scene, the Annihilation of the Soft Left, none of the Shits really think about politics. After all, none of them have ever really had to:

Truth is, despite our roots in the Annihilation of the Soft Left, the Shits are pretty soft ourselves. We are not from the streets. We are each of us semi-misfits from one middle-class suburb or another, except for Hera, who hails from serious money. Her father is one of those junk bond guys, almost went to jail. The rest of us are usually broke, but there are family basements with foldout couches flung across the American empire (New Jersey for me, Long Island for the Earl, Ohio for Cutwolf) for us to flee to in case of utter collapse. These are couches of last resort.

 

The Shits are pretty left wing, I guess, but our irony smothers our politics.

For all that he claims irony as his watchword though, Jack is endearingly earnest in his search for the Earl, his bass, justice, the truth, and one last kickass performance. The book practically hums with the energy of creative youth, as Jack navigates the different social scenes, running into real-life people who will loom even more largely in the headlines of our present day. It almost made me nostalgic for my own wild and dirty indie music days (albeit a decade later and in a different part of the country,) as Sam Lipsyte dissects with both ruthlessness and compassion what it means to be an artsy young person with dreams and a reckless sense of immortality. Most importantly, No One Left To Come Looking For You urges readers to take that energy and translate it into a will to make things better, no matter how much or little time has passed since one’s glory days.

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