We were talking, my fiancee, our friend, and I, about books. And we were racking our brains to come up with examples of contemporary fiction we’d recently read and loved absolutely. My fiancÈe liked Brian Evenson’s new one, The Open Curtain. Our friend hadn’t heard of it, so I filled in a few details and added that Coffee House Books would be publishing it. You know, I said, the folks who put out all the recent books by Gilbert Sorrentino.
Had we heard, our friend asked, that Sorrentino had died?
We hadn’t. No.
We had all spent a long day at BookExpo America, a yearly gathering of thousands of publishers, editors, and publicists, bookstore owners and their buyers, and assorted media types. The publishers showcase their forthcoming wares, the booksellers see what delights are due to arrive in their stores, and the media people go about cadging free review copies, most of which they have no plans to write a word about. Jim Belushi, one of BEA’s featured authors, walked by and I overheard a woman say to her friend, “He almost stepped on me.” She was thrilled. Upstairs, one booth featured a line of reading glasses that doubled as sunglasses. On fifteen-foot-high posters, Fabio-esque models peeked over the top of their fashionable shades. Other booths advertised music to read by and lapdesks for gifted kids. A woman dressed as a futuristic mosquito, in antennae and a skin-tight rubber bodysuit, perched on a man’s lap while his friends made eyes at her and took photographs. “You hope that’s what the future looks like,” one said. The Pillsbury Dough Boy was also said to be in attendance, to what PR end remains unclear. A lawyer who started a blog about a fictional lawyer who started a blog signed advance copies of his novel, about a lawyer with a blog who gets into some hot water when his firm finds out. Along the main aisle, which ran like an artery through the diseased heart of BEA, publicists passed out books to anyone with hands to hold them. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” one promised. “Want to read a great medical thriller?” another asked. “Perfect book for the plane ride home.” My fiancé saw books strewn all over the floor of the women’s restroom. They overfilled the trash cans.
It felt odd, and sad, to contemplate the death of Gilbert Sorrentino as the glare and the buzz of BEA dimmed and a dull headache took their place. Sorrentino wrote for so long that he became a fixture of the literary landscape, a lighthouse or an island to steer by, a guide and exemplar to like-minded travelers. His writing life spanned a good portion of the twentieth century. Born in Brooklyn in 1929, he was a boyhood friend of Hubert Selby, Jr. After a two-year stint in the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War, he got to know William Carlos Williams, who encouraged him to keep writing. Williams later included part of a letter from Sorrentino in Paterson. As an editor, Sorrentino worked with Alex Haley, publishing the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and helped Last Exit to Brooklyn into print. Selby dedicated it to him, to Gil.
Sorrentino wrote so well that his work attracted a flock of adjectives, each one insufficient to its simple descriptive task. His early work appeared in small, mimeographed magazines alongside Beat writers and Black Mountain poets, with whom he was sometimes compared. Later, he was by turns modernist and postmodernist, avant-garde until that term lost its faddish charge, and experimental. Few described him as a realist, though Steelwork, his second novel, published in 1970, and A Strange Commonplace, published earlier this year, provide a finely realized blueprint for Brooklyn as he knew and recalled it. Sorrentino, like Selby, wrote about the borough when it was a patchwork of working-class neighborhoods, before gentrification entered the language and prettied up the place.
His writing—call it what you will, but Sorrentino-esque might be as accurate a term of art as any—was not academic or rarefied. It was humane and warm, touching and exact. Nor did it shrink from the scuzzy, the mean, or the cruel. His novels could school both realistic and experimental writing, by combining realism’s deeply felt details with stories that assumed a variety of forms. Sorrentino’s fictions might appear disguised as improvisations, satiric masques, dirty jokes, or barroom boasts, but however brief, and however seemingly casual, they contain explosions of life. They start quick and they finish fast. Sorrentino’s endings are sometimes as abrupt as those life gives us, like it or like it not.
After we got home from driving our friend back to his hotel, I looked around the Internet for an obituary, an article, a brief notice, something. When I didn’t find anything on the Times, I felt encouraged. Maybe Sorrentino was alive. The more I browsed—I checked Google news and the Coffee House Press site before bed—the more hopeful and confident I became. It had been a rumor, nothing more, a mistake; the restaurant had been noisy and I had, perhaps, misheard. Surely someone else had died in his place.
I knew Sorrentino first and best as a reader of his work. As the editor of the eighth issue of McSweeney’s, I was glad to publish an excerpt from Lunar Follies, a book made of reviews and notices for fictional gallery exhibitions. They are beautiful and spot-on. They go from hilarious to melancholic in a sentence’s space. When Sorrentino asked me what in the world such a decidedly youthful publication wanted with his work (his son Christopher had published a story in an earlier issue), I said the honor was ours. He was doing us an enormous favor. His writing was a gift.
His writing also needed very little in the way of editing. I corrected a ‘loook’ which should have been ‘look’ and dutifully entered his typewritten manuscript into my computer, which has never since stored so many well-chosen words in succession.
Over the last few years, we stayed in touch, exchanging letters. I edited an anthology of writing about place and Sorrentino contributed a story, deceptively simple and shorter than many poems, about a woman on the subway. The story’s New York was recognizable, but the ease and assurance with which Sorrentino described it was only his own. In a 1974 interview, he said,
[T]here’s an enormous difference between being born and raised in New York and coming to New York, even if you then live here. If you come to New York when you’re an adult, and you live here for 40 years, you still don’t think of New York the way I do. Because New York is simply my home town. It’s not New York! . . . It’s very hard to make people understand that when you grow up in New York this is where you live. When you say, I’m going home for the holidays, you’re going to New York, see. You don’t go to New York to have a big time; you go home, that’s all.
On Sunday morning, I found news of Sorrentino’s death confirmed on a blog. His son Christopher had written the blogger, hoping to spread the news informally, from reader to reader, “especially,” he said, “since it’s not a 100% sure thing that the Times will pay him any more attention in death than they did in life.” My misplaced hope fell apart in my hands. The facts of Sorrentino’s death—he died at age 77, on May 18, of lung cancer—were there all along. I had been looking in the wrong spots, fishing in the mainstream instead of wading into the margins. There was a link to an obituary on the website of Dalkey Archive Press, which has long kept his early books in print, and so I read that, and then read everything else I could find.
Days later, the New York Times published its obituary. Less said there the better.
I addressed my first several letters to Mr. Sorrentino. Later, I began them, “Dear Gilbert Sorrentino,” which sounds like the opening line of a sweepstakes pitch. You may have just won ten million dollars. Eventually, I called him Gil, as he liked. His letters were unfailingly generous. He read things I wrote, when he could have simply acknowledged receiving them, thanked me, and wished me well, good luck, best wishes. Instead he wrote back about my ideas, if they can be called that, opening discussions that carried on over several months. His letters were sharp and funny, and he could rant more articulately than anyone I know. “Irony, satire, sarcasm,” he wrote,
all the things that should be used as ammunition against those who corrupt irony, satire, and sarcasm, have become crude and vulgar jokes with waitresses and messengers, fast-food restaurant employees and lowly clerks as targets. I knew the tide had turned when, in Five Easy Pieces, … Jack Nicholson goes into that torture scene with the waitress: she becomes the stupid working-class foil for the hip musician. The tide I speak of was not the scene, but the way that scene was valorized by the same people who loved Tom Wolfe and scumbags like the Diggers, man, the reservoir of the hip from whose ranks schmucks like the SLA and the Weathermen were drawn. They loved The People, man, but that fucking stupid waitress, wow! Fuck her! In any event, all these things came together and we are still laboring in their wake. The basic knowledge to hold close is that these people are all beyond their putative politics—in the end, they all laugh at the waitress.
I asked him where his sense of outrage went when he wrote fiction. Did it disappear or get put on hold? He said,
I think my political and social opinions, such as they are, are manifest in my fiction, simply because I situate my characters in a society that is American, a rather blissfully corrupted, unserious, superficial society that wants to be entertained and not taught—anything!
As I worked on this appreciation, writing and crossing out whole sections, I reread A Strange Commonplace and came across a chapter called “In the Diner.” It’s a page long, just one paragraph. In the chapter—on that page—three young men patronize a waitress. They compliment her polyester uniform and “her hairdo and the net that covers it.” They ask her about bands and clubs she’s never heard of. She’s tired. But man, they’re having a great time. “When they finish,” Sorrentino writes,
they walk outside into the night and their interesting and valuable lives, and as one steps off the curb to look for a cab, he is, for somebody’s reason, or on somebody’s whim, or by somebody’s mistake, shot to death from the rear window of a car that is slowly moving down the street. His two friends, terrified, look at him sprawled in the wet, bloody gutter, his head half shot away. One says, “Jesus, Ray, Jesus,” over and over.
As the story concludes, the waitress collects her tip: a quarter. “A nice touch,” Sorrentino writes, “for the morrow’s story in the Daily News.” The letter’s rant had vanished into the story’s details. It was subsumed, and wholly transformed. Three men had entered a diner, and then something happened. Sorrentino had told it. He had given it expression, and lent it a form. Nobody laughed at anybody.