Bay ridge, sorrentino


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.

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