An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Gilbert Sorrentino has long been on my list of great American writers. He's been at the top of that list for quite a while now and so when a great friend of mine sent me a copy of Red The Fiend I was keen to read this later work (1995). This is the latest of his works that I have read and yet he produced 5 more books before he died in 2006 so I still have 5 treats in store.

Since Steinbeck effectively laid down his pen in 1962 few American novellists have addressed themselves to the issues of the American working classes even though it is arguable that the working class plight now is worse even that it was in Steinbeck's time.  Bellow, Roth and Updike all produced middle class novels for the American middle classes. Sorrentino and his great friend Hubert Selby wrote of the working classes though I doubt that the working classes read their work. Red The Fiend is a novel about a small, tight, american working class family.

Red The Fiend is a brilliant novel that examines, dissects, documents and observes the creation of a monster or fiend. In his trademark elegant sentences, with his unfailing ear for dialogue, and with the inventiveness that marks him as a genius Sorrentino invites us to watch, and smile, as a young boy is turned into Red The Fiend. Only Pynchon can handle the grotesque with humour anywhere near as well as Sorrentino. At times I felt as though I was watching a train crash happen as I read this book and felt almost ashamed that I was laughing openly.

Red's grandmother may well be the most unpleasant character in all of literature but despite this she is frighteningly convincing - no caricature this - this is the real thing and all the more terrifying for that realism. Red The Fiend is in fact peopled by a fair few very nasty pieces of work.  I cannot imagine that anybody who has read this book will ever forget it.

Despite the genius of the narration, the polished brilliance of the language, the darkness of the subject matter, and the unforgettable nature of the things that happen in this book the truly stunning thing about this novel is the fact that it is so easy for the reader to fail to notice just how exceptional it is as a novel. Sorrentino wrote some of the greatest 20th century novels but in Red The Fiend he wrote a genuine 21st century novel and yet you could be forgiven for not noticing - he does it so well.

Red The Fiend runs to only 213 pages but contains 49 chapters. 49 chapters that could probably be read in almost any order. It is direct. It is unforgettable. It engages immediately and lastingly. It achieves what B S Johnson once described as the only point of the novel - telling the truth by telling stories. And it does so in an almost entirely new way. Red The Fiend points the way ahead for the novel.

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