If you get on the downtown Fourth Avenue Local (that's the R train to Brooklyn newcomers) in midtown, you'll cross under the East River, turn in roughly the opposite direction from hipster-infested Williamsburg, skirt the edge of writer-heavy Park Slope, and eventually arrive at the Eighty-sixth Street station, in the heart of the guaranteed literary-mystique-free white ethnic enclave of Bay Ridge. Which I did one sultry August afternoon in return-of-the-native fashion, walking past the location of the now extinct record store where I bought my first 45s ("He's a Rebel" and "Monster Mash"), the still flourishing Leemark Lanes, where I bowled unironically and unalone, and the car lots and body shops for which the neighborhood is justly famed, to arrive at the not quite accurately named Bridgeview Diner, an establishment featuring several acres of faux marble and silvered mirrors, to share coffee and conversation with another native son, the novelist Gilbert Sorrentino.
I was a little nervous. Over the course of his half-century-long literary career, Sorrentino's books have had the most intimidating author photos this side of Harry Crews's. His fierce Mediterranean visage looks out at the viewer, often with a Zapata mustache, wearing an expression of weary scorn that seems to say, "You really are a hopeless poseur. I know your type all too well." But maybe I'm just projecting. No human type gets off easily in a Sorrentino novel, but he brings a special glee to his savage lampoons of book editors—my own tribe. "Editors are probably among the dullest of human beings," he once stated authoritatively. Sorrentino's best-known work, Mulligan Stew, a vade mecum of avant-garde narrative strategies, begins with a poisoned garland of rejection letters so obliviously fatuous they have to have been real. An editor friend of mine read it, as I did, very early in his career, and we both considered it a crash course in how to avoid making a pompous ass of yourself. But when Sorrentino walked over to my booth, I was relieved to meet a bona fide neighborhood guy, a pleasant, smiling gentleman with a now slimmer mustache, superficially indistinguishable from the many other Bay Ridge retirees walking their dogs and picking up the afternoon paper.
Which is what he is. Virgil had his farm in Mantua, Edmund Wilson his old stone house in upstate New York, but Sorrentino has returned, Antaeus-like, to his home patch of concrete after two decades teaching at Stanford. That Bay Ridge should have produced and now once again harbors a literary figure of such large and varied accomplishment and daunting reputation is about as likely as, oh, say, a major American poet-physician practicing his art and delivering babies in Rutherford, New Jersey. (William Carlos Williams is one of Sorrentino's central influences, and in fact his poem Paterson incorporates part of a letter from Sorrentino, a vignette of a Mexican border town.) But if he is generally and quite accurately counted in the company of the demanding experimental novelists who emerged in the American '60s and '70s, Sorrentino remains the postmodernist you are most likely to share a boilermaker with. As resolutely inventive as all his books are, as scornful of cliché and of lazy narrative convention, they also betray, in their language, in their characters, and in their gritty details, a longstanding intimacy with the lumpen side of life. Whether his characters are caught bellying up to the bar at some boozy artists' and writers' bash in the Village or some Brooklyn waterfront dive, "These people are real, are real, are real, they are / absolutely rotten, and are real," as Sorrentino writes in his 1968 long poem "The Perfect Fiction."
Sorrentino (who recently received the Lannan Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award) can scarcely have a less objective reader than me. He has captivated me ever since I discovered Steelwork (1970), his novel of sharply etched and chronologically shuffled vignettes of working-class Brooklyn types gradually corrupted by wartime and postwar prosperity. Here skillfully, veraciously captured were Bay Ridge and its sometimes unlovely inhabitants, seen for what they are, neither the victims of circumstance posited by the proletarian novelists and the naturalists, nor the freaks and comic grotesques who populate the works of Bukowski and Algren. In an American literature largely inept in or inattentive to matters of class, this alone would distinguish Sorrentino's work. As he once put it, in a review of a LeRoi Jones–edited anthology titled The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America, "The America these people deal with is an America the middle class doesn't see and wouldn't get if it did." Steelwork offered the sort of intimate specificity of detail vouchsafed only to the native-born, and I recognized and had patronized any number of the bars, candy stores, pool halls, and movie theaters therein. Then I came upon Sorrentino's great short story "The Moon in Its Flight," a work that in thirteen pages says all that can possibly be said about callow Roman Catholic boys from Brooklyn and lovely Jewish girls from the Bronx and the unbridgeable cultural distances between them. The protagonist makes the long subway trek back to Bay Ridge after a party where he has been demoralized in the way only an encounter with an alien and superior culture can accomplish ("Who is Conrad Aiken? What is Bronx Science? Who is Berlioz? What is a Stravinsky? How do you play Mah-Jongg? What is schmooz, schlepp, Purim, Moo Goo Gai Pan? Help me"). "When he got off the train in Brooklyn an hour later," Sorrentino writes, "he saw his friends through the window of the all-night diner, pouring coffee into the great pit of their beer drunks. He despised them as he despised himself and the neighborhood." I knew the subway stop. I knew the diner and the guys in the diner. I knew that feeling in my bones. The shocks of recognition permanently annealed my connection to this author.
We two homeboys immediately fall into a conversation rich in local particulars. Sorrentino was born in 1929 to an Italian father and an Irish-Welsh mother. But the marriage collapsed when he was a boy, and he and his mother moved back in with his maternal grandparents—a situation that is replayed and repurposed numerous times in his fiction. Anyone seeking the roots of his sardonic and saturnine worldview need look no further than the astonishing circumstance that he was not allowed to attend Our Lady of Angels parochial school because his mother was separated from his father and hence a fallen woman. He attended the local public schools and Fort Hamilton High School, and then studied English literature and the classics at Brooklyn College on the GI Bill after a stretch in the stateside army as a medic during the Korean War. More troubles of a religious nature dogged him when a story of his in the student literary magazine, "Last Rites," was denounced as blasphemous and as a symptom of the anticlerical tenor of campus life by The Tablet, the local diocesan paper; it even ended up being denounced by the Vatican envoy at the United Nations. No wonder Sorrentino once referred to "the essential idiocy of living."
I had been rereading Steelwork on the subway, and the thought had occurred to me that it had some clear debts or at least resemblances to the hard-boiled proletarian novels of the '30s, but stripped of any political or ideological intentions. I tried this notion out on Sorrentino and he surprised me with the news that as a young man he had found James T. Farrell to be a great inspiration—the Studs Lonigan books of course, but also a novel about a writer, Bernard Clare, now long forgotten. Another surprising enthusiasm he let slip was for the work of John O'Hara—one feels a certain temperamental affinity there—and much less surprisingly, Faulkner and Joyce, whose fidelity to place and commitment to the modernist enterprise in fiction are so evident in Sorrentino's work as well.
After graduation Sorrentino married and moved to the East Village, making his first forays into the literary world while supporting himself and his family with a variety of dispiriting day jobs (the novelist Christopher Sorrentino, author of Trance, is his son). When I suggest to him that his work betrays an acquaintance with some seriously shit jobs, he chuckles and responds, "I could tell you a tale that would harrow up thy soul" and then reels off a list of them, from shipping clerk to unloading freight cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad to warehouse employee. "The most terrible jobs the world has ever known, jobs in which you were treated like scum," he avers—see his short story "The Dignity of Labor" for the grisly particulars. "All my sympathies are with the working man," he concludes in heartfelt fashion—an uncommon enough sentiment in the context of the contemporary American literary avant-garde, to be sure.
Between bouts of toiling for the Man, Sorrentino founded the short-lived but significant little magazine Neon with his boyhood friend and P.S. 102 classmate Hubert Selby, Jr.; began publishing poetry and criticism in like-minded journals such as Kulchur and Yugen; and in general situated himself somewhere at the intersection of the Black Mountain and New York schools and the Beats. A bit later, from 1965 through 1970, he worked as an editor—yes, an editor—for Grove Press, at a time when the house served as a wormhole for so many books of a revolutionary literary, political, and sexual nature. One of the books published there just before his stint was Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, to which Sorrentino gave a great boost through a critical piece that Grove sent out with review copies, helping to synchronize the drumbeat of praise and outrage. (Sorrentino's criticism, by the way, is first-rate, reflecting an astute, widely read, and adventurous literary intelligence, often expressing itself with a bracing and/or stinging acerbity. "John Gardner is of the puppeteer school of novelists," begins one salvo; "The surface of [John] Updike's writing twitches and quivers incessantly," begins another.) Throw in close friendships with some Village painters, and what you get is a classic portrait of a life lived at the vital if sodden floodtide of the White Horse–Cedar Tavern–Lion's Head era.
This whole scene is cast in an immensely unflattering light in Sorrentino's roman à clef–ish 1971 novel Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, which might be described as a master class in distinguishing between writers with drinking problems and drinkers with writing problems—think Dawn Powell with an MFA from Brown. An unsparing catalogue of the endless varieties of self-deception, dilettantism, fraudulence, and self-serving malarkey among the marginally talented, it has always seemed to me a seriously bridge-burning sort of book ("Art is the undoing of many a hick . . . Wait till the folks in Terre Haute see this!" is one of its milder provocations). When I venture as much to Sorrentino, he replies that "the truth of the matter is, many of those bridges were already burnt. It's just that the people on the other side of those bridges didn't want to accept this." In his telling, at a certain point in his bar-hopping, party-going Village life he came to a crossroads where he had to decide whether he was going to be a writer or a drunk. He opted for the former, adopting a strict regimen of writing from nine to eleven each weeknight in classic Flaubertian live-like-a-bourgeois fashion. Naturally his absence from the nightly revels managed to threaten his drinking buddies, who responded to his seclusion with a barrage of phone calls updating him on the Mets and similar irrelevancies. I propose to Sorrentino a nascent Neighborhood Guy theory—that in growing up in distinctly unliterary circumstances one develops both a sharp ear and a distaste for the sort of bullshit that was the coin of the realm in the Village in those years—and he heartily concurs.
This class-based double consciousness is but one of several factors that have contributed to Sorrentino's position as the "odd number" (to borrow one of his titles) of American letters. His career as a novelist began auspiciously enough in 1966, with The Sky Changes, a bitterly precise record of the dissolution of a marriage over the course of a coast-to-coast drive. It puts one in mind of the film Two for the Road, down to the flashback/flash-forward narrative structure, minus the Finney-Hepburn winsomeness and the Henry Mancini theme music. That book was published by Hill and Wang, and his next two novels, Steelwork and Imaginative Qualities, were done by Pantheon—both established New York trade houses. From this point on, as his formalist and experimental tendencies increasingly came to the fore, his luck with publishers became much spottier, with some dismayingly long dry spells. Mulligan Stew collected dozens of rejections before being picked up by his old employer, Grove (it was a great critical success). Since then, Sorrentino has published his fiction with an assortment of small and nonprofit presses, apart from one foray back into the trade arena with Aberration of Starlight, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award that was published in 1980 by Random House and reprinted in paperback by Penguin. While the corpus of Sorrentino's work is densely crosshatched with all sorts of parallels, correspondences, recurring characters, private obsessions, inside jokes (Hackettstown, Netcong, and other north Jersey towns often serve as laugh lines), and autobiographical details that mark each book as uniquely his and together give them a stylistic unity, few of them even remotely resemble any of the others in plot, structure, or intention. As a strategy for flummoxing publishers and putting critics off stride, this cannot be improved upon.
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It could not be otherwise. In his 1983 literary credo "Genetic Coding," Sorrentino states, "my own artistic necessities . . . are: an obsessive concern with formal structure, a dislike of the replication of experience, a love of digression and embroidery, a great pleasure in false or ambiguous information, a desire to invent problems that only the invention of new forms can solve, and a joy in making mountains out of molehills." Elsewhere he refers to "the joyous heresy that will not go away . . . that heresy [that] simply states: form determines content." This is an aesthetic program to which he has remained relentlessly true; his most recent novel, Little Casino (2002), returns to the collage-structured, vignette-driven, neighborhood-centered, period detail–stippled method of Steelwork, while Lunar Follies (2005) uncorks a barrage of viciously funny and on-target parodies of art-world cant, each titled and in some fashion linked to a geographical feature of the moon (Why? Because). The Moon in Its Flight (2004), a collection of short fiction spanning three decades, serves as the perfect gateway to and sampler box from Sorrentino's fictional world. He has in common with some of the best stage magicians the technique of putting his cards on the table, copping to the "fact" that what is on display is of course an illusion, and once the viewer-reader's defenses are down, sneaking in with an often devastating emotional wallop. "I will put their meeting at this party since all college parties are essentially the same and I am saved the trouble of describing it" is one such typical feint, from the story "Decades." At whatever length, the most successful of Sorrentino's works give the reader the sense not of a conventional story being told but of a formal design being worked through and completed. Like so much postmodern art, his books eschew the illusion of artistic omniscience and bring the reader inside the understanding that fiction is not a transcription of reality but rather an imaginative transaction with it.
There is also a strong tonal unity to Sorrentino's work, however diverse the design. He belongs in that small company of writers whose stubborn idiosyncrasy in matters of craft links up to temperaments prone to comic pessimism about the human prospect. This group of incorrigible individualists would include Willliam Carlos Williams (from whom Sorrentino draws his imaginative fidelity to the plain, bleak local facts of American life and its vernacular language); Flann O'Brien (whose Irish sense of "the comic futility of human existence" and fondness for wild parodies and narrative conventions twisted into pretzels inspired Mulligan Stew in particular); Gustave Flaubert (a fellow connoisseur of human stupidity and self-deception); and William Gaddis (whom Sorrentino praises for his transcendence of "meager naturalism" in JR, creating a "world that works, within itself, like a syllogism"). Sorrentino is obviously pleased when I quote back to him some of his words of praise for perhaps the oddest number of all in American literature, Edward Dahlberg—"his style, his pure, breathtaking style . . . is something that only the artistic intelligence can supply, and there are only a handful of writers who have it in the required degree"—and tell him that these words remind me of the irreducible integrity of his own work. "Crazy Edward," he murmurs appreciatively. Again, one can say of Sorrentino what Sorrentino says of Dahlberg: "He is not for sale."
All of which is fine and noble and true, but to say so risks giving the impression of Sorrentino as some sort of isolato whose work is intelligible only to the privileged few. In point of fact, many of the pleasures of his work are those of comic virtuosity and of an almost encyclopedic familiarity with cultural artifacts high and low. (As an artificer of the mock Homeric list he is second only to Joyce himself. One list, in Mulligan Stew, cites such fabricated little magazines as Icelandic Fiction Studies, the Modern Poetaster, Tin Ear, the Bronx Journal of Free Verse, Stet, Mu'fugga, Deep Image Studies, Kitsch 'n' Sink, Doggerel, and the Stalinist Humor Gazette, among dozens of others.) As far as
I know, no one has thought to link Sorrentino with Philip Roth, but they seem to me strikingly similar in a number of ways: their lower-middle-class backgrounds, their astonishingly precise memories of the places they came from, their refusal to step into the same narrative stream twice, their simmering and on occasion boiling anger at the shortcomings of the world as it is, and their unstinting seriousness of purpose.
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With nineteen published works of fiction in his oeuvre, Sorrentino presents a daunting number of points of entry to the interested newbie reader. In my view, however, two of his novels succeed in piercing the heart in ways that other, more parodic or strictly formal works do not.
The first is Aberration of Starlight, a book that manages to combine his signature formalism, emotional directness, and clearly autobiographical content with a heartbreaking emotional effect rivaled only by The Sky Changes. This tragicomedy of cross-purposes rehearses the particulars of a botched seduction at a New Jersey boarding-house resort in 1939 from the points of view of four witnesses or participants: Billy Recco, a vulnerable ten-year-old in search of a father figure; his mother, Marie Recco, a dispirited divorcée whose husband has left her for his slatternly secretary; Tom Thebus, a lounge-lizardly meat-cutting-machine salesman and would-be seducer of Marie; and John McGrath, Marie's sternly disapproving father, a widower once trapped in his own miserable marriage. Each character is allotted ten chapters in his or her turn, and all follow a strictly executed sequence of modernist modes—interior monologues, Joycean catechisms, letters actually sent, letters never sent, fantasy scenarios, standard narrative episodes, and stream-of-consciousness passages. Everything about the book tends toward the paradoxical. The Rashomon-like perspectives, rather than fragmenting one's sense of the events, coalesce to give the reader a sense of a larger, sadder unity than any standard approach could possibly yield. The shopworn phrases in which the characters speak and think never rise above the level of banal period clichés—a chicken with its head cut off, like it or lump it, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, etc.—their dead speech rendering the proceedings more convincing and more poignant than any "original" language would. The formal scheme, once grasped, rather than feeling arbitrary, channels the emotional force of the book's events in poignant fashion. Sorrentino performs in this book a miracle of art, transmuting an episode that in anyone else's hands would be small and tawdry and amusing, at best, into a window onto four lives that feel too sad to be anything but real.
Fifteen years later, in 1995, Sorrentino moved the three main characters in Aberration of Starlight back to a cramped Brooklyn apartment, resurrected the grandmother who was such a haunting presence in the grandfather's mind, and produced his darkest and most disturbing book. Red the Fiend is by far the most straightforward of Sorrentino's novels, a grimly compelling and utterly unrelenting psychological cauldron of a book that would not be at all out of place among the works of his friend Selby. If you have ever wondered how that awful kid in your elementary school got that way—you know, the potty-mouthed one with all the early and disturbing sexual information and the inventive methods of torturing cats with fireworks—here's your answer. The book is essentially a duet for two monsters locked in mortal combat—one born (Grandmother, the distilled essence of every bigoted, small-minded, miserly, sexually repressed tendency in Irish-American life), the other made (her grandson Red, the special target of her white-hot animus and a lightning rod for her impacted disappointments). It is one of the least known and most generally disliked, if not misunderstood, of Sorrentino's works. Kirkus complained that its characters were "caricatures, not flesh and blood," which both gets the point and misses it entirely. Even the author himself clearly feels some ambivalence toward it, quarreling with interviewers about attempts to see it as a realistic novel. And while it is certainly true that nobody in real life could survive the physical and emotional pounding that Grandmother visits on Red, the book nevertheless convinces the reader of its indelible human truth, and even its compassion for these two characters locked in their dance of death. In Grandmother's savage language, a toxic compound of self-pity and other-directed hatred, a veritable dictionary of received shanty Irish ideas, Sorrentino's extraordinary mimetic powers rise to the level of dark poetry. "Grandma groans that the charity ward, where she'll surely end her days what with her weak chest and her nervous heart and her blood that's as thin as water, yes, the charity ward with the poor drooling ignorant hunkies and dagos will give her more peace than her own family, before the final blessed peace of the grave." Red the Fiend is not an easy book to find and not a book for tender sensibilities, but it is a discomfiting masterpiece, once read impossible to forget or shake off.
Which is something I wish I had been able to tell Gilbert Sorrentino at the Bridgeview Diner in person, but I read the book only after our coffee date. As we finished our drinks and then said our goodbyes on Third Avenue, and he headed back to his Shore Road co-op, I looked around me at the familiar quotidian details of Bay Ridge with the mingled nostalgia and relief familiar to escapees, and pondered the enduring mystery of place and talent in American literature, coming to absolutely no conclusions. This I do know, however: Now that Brooklyn has been officially sanctioned as "hip" and "literary"—and you'll excuse me for a second here while I roll on the floor in a spasm of ironic hilarity—it is high time for the bridge-and-tunnel literati to turn its gaze Verrazano Bridge–ward and begin discovering one of that borough's most intriguing and authentic homegrown talents. Sorrentino's Bay Ridge deserves to be appreciated alongside Malamud's Crown Heights, Arthur Miller's Coney Island, Henry Miller's and Betty Smith's Williamsburg, Hamill's and Auster's Park Slope, and Lethem's Boerum Hill. Time to get on that Fourth Avenue local.
Gerald Howard is a book editor in New York City. His last piece for Bookforum was "Rocket Redux: Gravity's Rainbow; Remembered, Reread, Reconsidered," in the Summer 2005 issue.