A reluctant messiah inspires people to focus in a time of chaos in Sam Lipsyte's "Hark."

Best-selling author Lipsyte assembles a motley ensemble for his first novel since "The Ask" put him squarely on America’s literary map, but it’s mostly a sour, disaffecting experience that’s reflective of our troubled times. The novel’s central character is a guru-light type named Hark Morner who preaches a New Age–y discipline called “Mental Archery,” a goofy combination of mindfulness, made-up history, some yoga and visualizations based around archery. Unfortunately, Lipsyte assembles his story through the point of view of the supporting characters, most of whom are miserable misanthropes when they’re not around Hark. The author’s primary avatar is Frank “Fraz” Penzig, whose primary characteristics are being the “old guy” at 46 years old, locked in a miserable, combative marriage with his wife, Tovah, and father to two kids. Also floating around is their patron, Kate Rumpler, who’s a felon due to having offed her pervert uncle and supremely rich since her parents crashed their private plane, and Teal Baker-Cassini, the intellectual who lends Hark’s harebrained discipline some credibility. There are no real villains here, barring the tech titan who wants to commercialize Hark’s movement and a weird cult that shows up late in the game to oppose it. As usual, Lipsyte’s command of language is sublime — Hark’s directive to “Actuate the world” could come straight out of the Silicon Valley parodies that are so prolific lately — but the dubious premise and deeply unlikable characters sour the already-tart satire that the author is proposing. The book has its twists: After Hark has a meltdown in St. Louis, and one of the cast members suffers a potentially heartbreaking grievance, there’s an opportunity to shift the narrative to a more believable scenario, but instead the story descends into its own sad, inevitable stew of nonsense.

Magical realism works great for some authors, but Lipsyte ends up closer to the ending of the television show "Lost" than to any substantial prosecution of contemporary society.

(Lipsyte will speak and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)

A love letter to Earth

Pam Houston's "Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country" is a collection of essays about finding and maintaining one’s place on our changing planet.

In her latest, Houston writes with the same unvarnished, truth-loaded sentences that made her short story collection "Cowboys Are My Weakness" (1992) a contemporary classic. Her nonfiction persona, like many of her fictional narrators, is tough and full of gumption. “Did I ask myself whether putting 5 percent down on a 120-acre ranch I had no idea how to take care of and no foreseeable way to pay for might have been taking the idea of retethering to the earth to a radical extreme? I did not,” she writes, continuing, “if buying the ranch was a gross overreaction to either my mother’s death or my book’s ("Cowboys") unexpected turn, it was a secret I kept from myself.” Of course, the author made it work, and the ranch served as a connecting point between seasonal teaching and her many travels. The author’s affinity for the place is clearly powerful — and infectious for readers. “Ranch Archive,” which mostly recounts the history of the ranch itself, is the least engaging piece, but the rest are excellent, as the author enthuses readers through her prose and attitude alike. Writing in the face of climate change, she refuses to shrink. “I am celebrating because this magnificent rock we live on demands celebration,” she writes. “I am celebrating because how in the face of this earth could I not?” By the end of the book, she has been through it all — fires, blizzards, murdered animals and more — and we understand when she writes, “when you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.”

"Deep Creek" is a profound and inspiring love letter to one piece of Earth — and to the rest of it, as well.