Lost in America
A Final, Moving Outing From One Of Brooklyn's Finest Belletrists
It takes a little while for the title of this brief book--drawn from a poem by William Carlos Williams--to justify itself. Something strange is happening, and what looks at first to be a 150-page novelette turns into a creepy, labyrinthine journey through the lives of post-war America. For a writer in the final phases of illness--Gilbert Sorrentino died of lung disease last March, shortly after the final proofs were edited--he doesn't feel he has to go out of his way to create closure. In A Strange Commonplace, middle-class America trumpets its links endlessly but loses itself at every turn.
Commonplace contains 52 brief vignettes, and Sorrentino shuffles restlessly back and forth between several generations of seemingly related Brooklyn, N.Y., characters from the mid-'50s to the present. One solitary, aging character sits in his room waiting to deal himself a straight flush, promising to kill himself when he does. Two aging brothers sleep with one another's wives. A young businessman comes home to his drunk wife.
By the middle of the first half of the book, it's clear that all these plot threads are not going to be woven together. As the story progresses, it's a game of Russian roulette with apocalyptic undertones. The connections are often coincidental. The narrators of individual vignettes sometimes get their characters' names wrong. In Sorrentino's world we shouldn't take anything--a bottle of Worcestershire sauce, a spotted scarf, or a pearl-gray homburg--for granted.
A plot synopsis becomes difficult, particularly when you realize that some of the stories are untrue. A young beautiful woman is said to have been molested by her uncle, but later that is exposed as a vicious rumor. She marries a man who leaves her after she winds up sleeping with other men. Elsewhere, a writer tries desperately to get his feet through the literary door. A thirtysomething man finds himself trying to mingle with hipsters who are, he suspects, sleeping with his young wife. The stories move together, you detect patterns and redundancies, you associate certain moments with certain acts.
Sorrentino isn't challenging you to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The alleys that A Strange Commonplace lead you down frequently dead-end, and some are mistaken for others. Names, for instance, become devilishly deceptive. One girl, Claire, is called Clara by another, and the story lines themselves are repeated like a game of telephone: By the time several versions of a character's infidelity have been offered, it's difficult to tell if you're thinking about the same people or the same story.
By the end of the second section, you're pretty sure that he isn't talking about the same people. The 26 mini-chapters that make up the first chapters are all given names--"Three Deuces," "The Snow," "Rockefeller Center"--that are repeated in the 26 mini-chapters of the second section, although in different order and with different characters.
Indeed, the book's most powerful moments frequently rise when you get lost in the labyrinthine paths and dead ends. Just as you find the missing piece, the puzzle itself takes on strange dimensions. The effect is maddeningly incomprehensible, but it also brings you closer to the lives of Americans who have been desperately looking for links in a culture that distorts them.
In "Snow," a young boy crawls through a snow tunnel from his mother, standing at one end, to his father; Mom and Dad are on the verge of divorce. The smells of the kitchen and their lives already have been branded as dismal and deteriorating. For a moment, though, you're lost in the snow tunnel with the young boy, scrambling toward a barely visible outline of his homburg-wearing father. Dreary, deserted avenues suddenly become magical snow tunnels--but only for a painfully brief moment:
The child begins to laugh joyously in the crepuscular gray light of the magical tunnel, laughing in the middle of the knifing cold of the January day, laughing since he does not know, nor do his mother and father, in their youth and beauty and strength, that this will never happen again, and that the family is almost finished and done. His father wears a white silk scarf with blue polka dots.
For those who may have peeked into Sorrentino's earlier work--Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things--this book might prompt a rereading of his early work. If anything, A Strange Commonplace leads you to the core of a writer for whom dark humor is a saving grace in a world of dead ends.