SEPTEMBER 23, 2021
“HAPPINESS,” AROUND THE Sorrentino family, “was something the smart money wasted no time pursuing.” Certainly, the little clan was smart; both father and son, Gilbert and Christopher, carved out distinguished literary careers. Yet the mother held her own around the household, often calling the shots. Born Vivian Dora Ortiz, her 1937 birth certificate listed her parents as Puerto Rican and her race as “BLACK,” and she spent her childhood in the “epicenter of the South Bronx’s destruction.” By the time the woman had a child of her own, however, she was another lower-Manhattan boho, nurtured by the rich cultural stew of that borough and era: bebop, Baldwin, the abstract expressionists. Passing for Anglo, she took the name Victoria — Vicki — and as soon as Chris was old enough to understand, she assured the boy he wasn’t really Puerto Rican, much less Black.
Over subsequent decades she showed similar complexity, her wiles and depths fascinating, and as a result she is the focus of the son’s family memoir, Now Beacon, Now Sea. The text acknowledges that the woman’s trajectory could seem a triumph, up from poverty largely by dint of backbone. In these pages, she stands equal to a husband who died, as the son tells his doctor, “actually an important person.” Nevertheless, this Beacon won’t light the way to a simple happy ending. Uplift, that’s a game for suckers.
The opening shows us Victoria’s decayed corpse. The author discovered her, and he showed up days after the final crisis. “The face was a nightmare,” he admits; “[m]aggots were busy at work.” Most memoirists would shy away from such a horror show, but Sorrentino foregrounds the ugly display, then returns to it in the closing chapters, sinking further into the stench and wretchedness. In the end as at the beginning, he doesn’t duck the accusation: “What kind of son are you?” He realizes, too, how that question invites a corollary: What sort of family was this? The answer to both questions gives us this memoir.
As for the father’s passing, that came a decade earlier and was neither so lonesome nor so gruesome. Also, the son was present for the old man’s decline (due to brain cancer), rather than simply confronting his corpse, and all this comes well along in the text. It feels inevitable since, overall, Now Beacon follows a standard chronology. Once past the initial shock of discovery, the text stays with the mother — she’s the lead, the fulcrum. But it shuttles back first to the woman’s immigrant parents, and after their introduction, it works through “Vivian’s” upbringing and young adulthood. These chapters are brief, and it’s not until the fourth that Gilbert comes into her life. At that point, he’s past 30, married with children, and she’s already had quite la vie passionée.
The distance these two traveled, starting with an illicit barroom hookup and ending with grandchildren and a comfy Brooklyn retirement, does seem like an affirmation. What’s more, the husband’s accomplishments prompt the couple’s only child to see him as “a god.” Insofar as the man’s death provides the text’s climax, it’s a wrenching one. “For three nights,” the son admits, “I drank straight bourbon whiskey and wept” — and that’s just the beginning of his abnegations. Chris even gets upset over his parents’ choice of hospital, a Brooklyn facility he finds “wretchedly inadequate.”
With some justification: Gilbert Sorrentino never wrote an infelicitous line. His poetry and prose redefined the avant-garde, and while the novel most readers have heard of is the uproarious Mulligan Stew (1979), his 30-plus titles include wilder work, and better. Splendide-Hôtel (1973) is one example. On that strange novella’s first page, you find: “It is the artist who lives the nonartistic life who is most aware of his painfully absurd position.” An artist, that is, like the older Sorrentino. A Depression child of lunch-pail Brooklyn, an autodidact who forged his own amalgam of Rimbaud, Flann O’Brien, and William Carlos Williams, the man reached midlife “working various dead-end jobs,” as his son puts it. Inveterately “blue-collar,” the father had few of the “affiliations that help to make a literary career.”
Shortly after the old man’s death, Christopher published a kind of eulogy in Golden Handcuffs Review, in which he called his father “a supremely arrogant man” — a startling piece of praise but warmly intended, a salute. (Not surprisingly, the wording was changed when the piece appeared as a preface to Gilbert’s final novel, The Abyss of Human Illusion .) In Now Beacon, Now Sea, the son treats the arrogance more severely, unsparing about what it required: “[A] rigid, self-annihilating discipline.” Only this afforded the father whatever success he achieved — limited, of course, a succès d’estime. The son begins to grasp that tradeoff on the cusp of adolescence, as he finds Pop unavailable between breakfast and dinner. Still, the man remains a benign presence: he likes to talk baseball, and at that point the family has lucked into subsidized housing in the Village. This allows for something like a free-range childhood, and the memoir’s glimpses of tattered 1970s New York, the demimonde of early Scorsese, count among its pleasures. The same goes for the peeks into his parents’ halcyon days, 20 years earlier. Young “Gil” and Vicki, bouncing between the Cedar Tavern and the Five Spot, “lived the life that Fred McDarrah photographed.” There are cameos from Dawn Powell and Sonny Rollins.
As the tweener Chris starts feeling his oats, however, his fortysomething mother finds the fun’s over. Once her husband knuckles down, sharpening his focus until the world starts “echoing his will,” family life begins to have the opposite effect for Victoria from what it’s supposed to. She finds herself isolated, indeed seems to choose isolation, angrily turning her back on any sort of outlet, whether creative or through the community. “She was a bitch” — so claims one of her Village neighbors, and the memoir’s central challenge becomes figuring out why.
But then, “[t]o remember childhood is to remember an existence as a different species.” As the memoirist renders long-ago experience vivid, he or she must also apply mature understanding and investigate fresh revelations. It’s a tricky balance, keeping a foot in the past and present at once, but Sorrentino pulls it off so well you would think he was (to choose a reference from his parents’ era) one of the Flying Wallendas. Early on, just after he comes upon his mother’s “horrifying” remains, he establishes a device for testing his childhood impressions. He relates what the woman had told him in the difficult years between his father’s death and her own. Still, while these adult sit-downs offer illumination, they sound awfully cantankerous. Mother and son “finally […] had come to the tacit agreement that to talk was happier than not to,” but they nonetheless endure long, bristling stretches incommunicado. Right through to the text’s ambiguous valediction — a verse from Psalms, expressing the Unknowable — the woman makes difficult company and eludes easy comprehension. As the ringing title sentence puts it: “Unfathomable mind: now beacon, now sea.”
What Christopher is wrestling with includes a few memories of physical abuse, a slap or a poke, but this isn’t that sort of memoir. This author dismisses such concerns — “who doesn’t cross a line from time to time?” — instead struggling to unpack the woman’s “formidable anger.” Around the house, Victoria held her own, so potent that she dragged husband and son with her into greater and greater withdrawal. As she became “a stranger to the world,” her closest confidants “the UPS man, the […] landscaper, the cashier at the local market,” the other two became partners in that estrangement. Chris kept making himself scarce, taking on his own dead-end jobs, and as for the father, his need for alone time helped enable a domestic life that was like “astronauts aboard a space station.”
The analogy fetches a laugh, and the book offers a passel more, but the jokes don’t keep Now Beacon from feeling like a memoir out of Job: I only am escaped alone to tell thee. The ruling emotions are the bewilderment and hurt of living ever more cut off. A few examples border on farce, such as when the Sorrentinos huddle in silence, with the lights out, in order to avoid a visit from an old friend. But there’s nothing funny about how little the son knows his extended family, especially the two half-siblings from Gilbert’s first marriage. The last Christopher hears of his stepsister, she has suffered an overdose, “following a brief and tumultuous life.” As for his own children, just getting his parents to see those kids requires torturous negotiations.
The full-grown narrator, though never entirely free of “the eighteen-year-old in me,” does get his mind around some of what ailed his mother. The memoir wastes little time identifying one major source of her misanthropy — namely, a “scalding rage at her own mother.” Back when she was “Vivian,” she suffered abuse far worse than her own child endured. Then came her challenges outside the home, growing up mixed-race and immigrant among the labor class in mid-20th-century New York. Her son isn’t blind to those experiences, and he detects traces of what he calls, once more playing the wise guy, “Tragic Mulatta status.” Whatever you call her pathology, however, there’s no question that crossing the color line first contributed to the woman’s “sense of unbelonging,” and the trauma was felt in her own family. Nonetheless, for this analyst-author, such tensions don’t go deep enough. “But she was crazy,” he asserts about midway through, about the time he identifies what he believes to be the root problem — namely, a “depression that somehow went undiagnosed.” Beyond that, he discerns the vicious cycle that kept her from therapy, her “lack of self-awareness,” robbing her of “the emotional wherewithal to seek help.”
Such psychological probing drives the text, at once its plot and its core concern. If the son can know his mother’s mind, then he can rejoin the human race — as if the surviving Sorrentino believes in happiness, after all. This purpose has its risks, though, in that the author keeps raking over the same greasy family coals, which could grow tiresome.
Another of the family’s major turning points comes at the start of the ’80s, when a position his father secured at Stanford at last affords economic security. Sweeter still, the offer constitutes an exciting boost, and a lasting one, for the father’s literary stature. These benefits don’t go unmentioned, but the memoir dwells far more extensively on the turmoil of leaving New York. The son isn’t yet out of his teens — troubled, drinking — and the parents reveal again both their lack of emotional resources and their unwillingness to ask for help. The result is a relocation by combat: “These California fights were special […] indelible.” Predictably, the wounds continue to fester. Years later, as his father lies dying, Chris erupts with a destructiveness that, in context, feels inevitable. Diving into an affair, ripping apart his young family, he seeks “to wreck everything that might have given me comfort — that might, for that matter, have given my parents comfort.”
As I say, a memoir out of Job, and some might grow weary of the wailing. Not me, however; my reservations have to do, instead, with how little Sorrentino grants his parents a physical presence. There’s nothing about, say, the feel of his father’s beard; there’s no startling photo of his mother as a young hottie. Material like that would have added dimension to the son’s developing insights. Nevertheless, he achieves remarkable penetration into a damaged personality, and pores knowledgeably over the wreckage left in its wake. Besides, the author makes plain that he’s in a better place these days. He’s done with all his carrying on and has settled into a blended family, with creative friendships, a “middle-aged, middlingly successful writer.”
The rueful wit is typical, another of the book’s rewards, and most quips have the snap of the street. Mulling over yet another spiky encounter with Mom, the son can only shake his head at “the ferkakta wisdom of her position.” Elsewhere, Sorrentino shares Job’s bitter wish that he’d never been born, except with a grin: “[T]his meshuggah instantiation of the Categorical Imperative.” He’s got a clever way with lists, too, for instance concerning all that his parents denied themselves: “[S]itting around all night talking, arguing, laughing, making off-color jokes, in your face, drinking, smoking, turn up the music, close the bar, go to the party, to the opening, to the reading…”
For the younger Sorrentino’s career, Now Beacon, Now Sea seems a significant new tack in the larger project he has pursued since his father’s death. Earlier, Christopher pursued the same goal as many other aspiring writers — a great novel — but unlike most, he managed it. He’s had a finalist for the National Book Award, Trance (2005), which imagined Patty Hearst’s life underground with the same psychological acumen as he wields here. Since then, however, he’s tried out collaborative efforts both humorous and serious, as well as an intriguing novel, The Fugitives (2016), which I see as his Mulligan Stew. Both father and son, a decade into their careers, felt compelled to write about a writer going to pieces. The protagonists’ breakdowns have them knocking up against those of other people, as well as stumbling into the supernatural, and both men’s mashups cohere finally as funhouse tours through the purpose of storytelling.
Yet the takeaway from each couldn’t be more different; the writer in Stew winds up floating away amid his cockeyed phantasms, while the one in Fugitives shakes them off, strapped for cash but not for self-knowledge. Talk about a generation gap: the son seeks such knowledge, painful but good for him, while the father raises a polyphonic outcry against any such thing. Gilbert Sorrentino’s people never came away the wiser, neither in an early masterwork like Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things (1971) nor in a late one like A Strange Commonplace (2006). Rather, the point was to harness idiocy and failure in the creation of some unforeseen beauty. But in his new memoir, the son makes a definitive — and I dare say triumphant — break from Dad. In sorting out his family’s agonies, making sense of even the most ferkakta, he demonstrates that the labor is still worth it. With excoriating candor, with empathy enough to give you gooseflesh, he gleans exciting new clues in that never-ending mystery, the lives of the artists.