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Milo and Milo

I recently finished two enjoyable novels that I was pretty sure I’d like, given that they were both sequels of a sort. The main characters of both books were named Milo, a name that in literature appears only (to my knowledge) in The Phantom Tollbooth and Catch-22.

The Milos in the new books I just read are much different than the two classic literary Milos. One, featured in the new thriller by Olen Steinhauer, is a cool, effective CIA killing machine (but of the good-guy variety, also he has some little character flaws to make him tolerable but he’s basically a superhero). The other is not any sort of killing machine, more of more of a Sam Lipsyte character. Which makes sense since he’s the star of The Ask, the follow-up to Lipsyte’s hilarious lovable-loser saga, Home Land.

I have two questions about The Ask.

1. The driver of the plot is as follows. Milo has just been fired from his crappy job at a college in NYC. Milo has a rich friend who asks him to do a favor; in return the rich friend will donate a pile of money to the college where Milo works, allowing Milo to keep his job.

What I kept wondering was: why does Milo want that job so much? It seems horrible in all respects. Why not just cut out the middleman and have his friend pay him directly? This would seem like a win-win situation.

2. I’m from the D.C. suburbs, and so when I saw “The Ask,” I immediately thought, “The Ax.” And that in turn reminded me of the classic Donald Westlake novel, about a downsized mid-level corporate executive who cold-bloodedly kills several people standing between him and a new job. The Ax is satirical but also feels serious.

Anyway, The Ask is in some ways The Ax inside out. The Ax is about a man who does horrible things to get a good job. The Ask is about a man who refuses to do horrible things to get a bad job. What I’m wondering is: was this on purpose, was it partly on purpose, or had Lipsyte never actually heard of the Westlake novel when he inadvertently wrote its mirror image.

Lipsyte teaches at Columbia, so maybe I can corner him at some point and get answers.

P.S. I don’t have anything much to say about The Nearest Exit. It is what it is, and I pretty much liked it. The only thing that amazed me were the blurbs. Not the comparatives and superlatives—the book really is excellent, certainly a smoother read than Red State Blue State or even Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models—but rather this, attributed to the New York Times Book Review:

Like le Carre’s George Smiley, Weaver is a richly imagined creation with a scarred psyche and a complex backstory that elevates him about the status of run-of-the-mill world-weary spook.

“Complex backstory”? Ya gotta be kidding. George Smiley doesn’t have a complex backstory. There’s nothing complex about him at all. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is great and it deserved every week of its reign on the bestseller lists, but it’s all about the plot and the atmosphere. Which is just fine.


  1. Tom says:

    As far as I remember, the main character in William Boyd's Armadillo is called Milo; he changes his name to Lorimer to disguise his Romani origins. I highly recommend the book.

  2. zbicyclist says:

    There's also the Milo in "Milo and Otis", a very nice kids' movie about a kitten and a puppy.