I didn’t recognize Gilbert Sorrentino the one time I was lucky enough to meet him and hear him read. Next to William Gaddis’s, his writing is the funniest in American literature, yet this humor is incongruent with dustjacket photographs that made him look alternately like some Mafia don silently ordering whackings, and the greaser with a thick handlebar moustache in the high school bathroom ready to kick your ass, just because. When I saw Sorrentino in the flesh, he was much taller than I had assumed, and thin, and looked like a sweet old man. He asked how long he had to read and someone said “How about forty-five minutes?” and he began to read in this slow, quiet voice that had me panicking that, favorite writer or no, this was going to be a long forty-five minutes. But it wasn’t: he went straight into the raunchy stuff, laughing at his sorry characters and their sorry lives (which I laughed at too, even though I could recognize myself) with the surety and confidence of a natural storyteller.
My hardcover copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend bears the author’s tiny, unreadable signature on the full title page.1 When he signed it he told me that his royalties statements indicated that it sold approximately one copy per year. Thankfully, Dalkey Archive, which now keeps the majority of Sorrentino’s fiction in print, has rescued and reissued this book, one of the top three or four American novels of the 1990s2 and one of Sorrentino’s very best. They’ve brought it out in a nice paperback edition, one which should expose many new readers to this book in which Sorrentino’s writing is even funnier and more depressing than usual. When Sorrentino died on May 18, 2006, we lost a colossal, monstrous, intense, outstanding writer, one of the best ever, a man who was prolific, but whose less successful books are better than most writers’ best. With Dalkey now printing Sorrentino, it looks like this legacy will not be lost.
Red the Fiend is a standout in a career built on writing funny and depressing books that wouldn’t be so funny if they weren’t so depressing, and vice versa. It’s the story of Red, a boy growing up in Brooklyn at the end of the Great Depression. He’s a violent, idiotic, filthy, lonely, mean, wretched kid.
His father is a man full of the empty promises of the dedicated alcoholic. Red lives with his vacuous mother, his spineless “mollycoddle” of a grandpa, and of course, Grandma. Grandma is one of the most hateful, evil characters in all of American literature, one who never has anything nice to say about anyone or anything and who speaks in a truly bizarre collection of personal clichés, epithets, and bigoted remarks.3 Quite possibly the most judgmental person in all of Sorrentino’s stable, she’s a racist know-it-all drama queen who’s constantly in need of attention and carping about the collusion of the world against her, the thoughtlessness of everyone else. She’s a niggardly woman, religious when it suits her, one who doesn’t believe life is for enjoying, a woman who can put an ugly spin on anything, as if to highlight for others her personal suffering in every aspect of life.
Red, whose “face is the very essence of stupidity,” is subjected to daily verbal abuse by Grandma for offenses imagined, picayune, or authentic:
If Red becomes terrified when Grandma summons the demon, Hurley Lees, by thrice intoning, Hurley Lees, come blow your horn, the king’s son is in your garden, she contemptuously knocks him on the sconce till his eyes rattle. 4
as well as:
The next day Grandma whips Red with her belt for getting a towel too wet. The day after she pinches his arms black and blue for not changing his shoes after school. The next day she boxes his ears until his head sings and buzzes for not washing his hands before supper like some kind of a black nigger. And the day after that she drums on his skull with her knuckles for getting a spot of ink on his white school shirt.
Sorrentino had the incredible ability to replicate, with a chameleon’s accuracy (and one is tempted to believe, its speed), the voices of his characters. He often did this without the benefit of dialogue or personal narration, and moved effortlessly among multiple voices without confusion (or superfluous, intrusive attributions). Despite the hyperactive misery, the no-holds-barred judgmentality, and the unmitigated racism of Red’s characters, Sorrentino expresses their thoughts, feelings, and actions with prose that is blunt, brutal, and poetic. He makes us want to get right up next to some very ugly people.5
This is the key to Sorrentino’s genius: there are many writers who, like Sorrentino, can be funny and sad at the same time, but none can make their books hurt the way Sorrentino did. Sorrentino wound the humor and the misery together like a tight length of hurt: the funnier it was, the sadder it was, and the more it hurt. Importantly, he never lost touch of the difference between sentimentalism and genuine emotion.6 He knew that showing us Red’s lie-filled school compositions (his “cousin Katys husband used to be mayer of Union city Jersey till he fell off a trolley whose door opened by a nigger he is now a crippel”) could be more painful and show us more about him than working up some tearjerker narrative about poor, poor Red and his hard, hard life.
Sorrentino’s love of lists is put to maximum use in this novel, as several chapters are nothing but: strings of insults, catalogs of feelings, lists of reasons. It’s a book so good that I’ll venture to say—at the acknowledged risk of sounding like one of those “tour de force” movie reviewers who only want to see their names in the marketing copy—it is honestly sad when the book ends after a cyclone of 213 pages. The material is so rich, however, and Sorrentino packs so much feeling and information, that in many ways the book is better the second time through. And of course it reminds you that you’ve not yet re-read Odd Number, Gold Fools, Blue Pastoral, Little Casino, The Sky Changes, Mulligan Stew . . .
1Bizarre side-note: while finishing this essay-review, I received a box of books I’d ordered from Powell’s, one of which was a hardcover copy of Pierre Albert-Birot’s Grabinoulor; I opened it to discover (to my delight, obviously) Sorrentino’s same cramped signature on the front flyleaf. Was this his personal copy? Did he write his name in all his books? How’d this one end up at Powell’s? It’s worth noting that it is wholly impossible to find the words Gilbert or Sorrentino in his signature, and I only recognized it as his (rather than some random book owner’s) because I’d put in the above line about his signature. Weird.
2To put this statement (or at least my tastes) in perspective, I’d situate Red the Fiend in the company of Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Coover’s John’s Wife, Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook, Wright’s Going Native, Gass’s The Tunnel, Dixon’s Interstate, and Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
3“Grandma cannot stand this willful rottenness, she blames Mother for spoiling the pathetic little maggot of a boy, God save him, letting him get away with murder while they’re starving to death in Armenia and China and Arabia and who knows what other Godforsaken parts of the world full of hungry black niggers and jabbering chinamen that only Jesus Himself could love, what with them eating each other raw and their fifty wives apiece!” (14)
4Who- or whatever the fuck Hurley Lees is, I have no idea, but the hilarious witch-speak of “thrice intoning” is a pretty much spot-on example of Sorrentino’s ability to match his characters’s real or imagined personalities in only a few words.
5“[Red] says in a voice so low that he can hardly hear himself, the word cunt. He has no truly clear idea of what the word means, but he knows that it is really dirty, worse than shit. It is, he knows, absolutely forbidden, and its dangerous opacity seems the perfect descriptive for Grandma.” (73)
6But he usually opted for sentimentalism, in part to make fun of writers who didn’t know the difference in the two.
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