"Hey, nice!" ###
"Wha ...? "
Gil: "The drawing"
I was sitting at the bar in The Cedar Street Bar, absentmindedly drawing a picture with an index that had been dipped in my beer, when a large hunk of a guy sat next to me and, as he lit up a cigarette, ordered a beer.
"Yeah. They're always nice. Don't ask me why, but they can't go wrong, especially when the beer starts to evaporate... in fact, they're better than anything I try to do seriously"
Gil: "I'd like to be able to write like that."
Gil: "You know. Write a sentence and then watch with delight as it transforms itself into something better."
"That would be something to see. You write then?"
Gil: "Maybe. Maybe you could call it that. I don't really know what the fuck I'm doing."
I held my hand out. "Pepe."
"Gilbert ... Gilbert Sorrentino."
Gil: "I guess"
('This is not a word for word quote of the conversation, but it is the gist of it, and it is the way that I first met Gil.)
"What's it called?"
Gil: "Well, the first two sort of just came and went. It's the last one that's got me in trouble."
'That's interesting. I know another writer that felt that way about his. How'd yours get you in trouble?"
Gil: "Here, in this bar."
"I don't get it."
"I used real names and passed judgment. Everyone hates me. I'm like in Coventry here."
"Christ man, what's the book? I gotta read that one."
"It's called 'Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.' You'll probably know lots of the names."
"One good thing, I guess, is that I'm not in it."
Gil: "Maybe the next one."
"It happens, it happens, but they did him a favor there."
Then he laughed.
"Who'd you offend Gil, in your novel?"
"Who's your guy?"
Gil: "You know, the writer who got in trouble."
"He dint get in trouble, it was the best thing that could have happened to him."
"The government charged his publisher with selling obscene literature."
"You talking about Cubby?"
"Yeah, you know Cubby?"
"Cubby and I go way back, way, way back, all the way to Brooklyn."
"He was dying, dying, here at the bar, right where you are, worried sick."
"Yes, and drinking. I said to him, shit man, this is the best thing that could happen to you, you can't buy, and you can't afford that kind of free publicity."
"And he came out of it ok."
"Every artist of any note was there in the courtroom, going to bat for Cubby and for Bill Ward, his publisher."
"I was there man."
"Good for you...fuckin' censorship."
"Everyone. What could I do? I ain't going to write lies just to make them all happy."
"I gotta read that book."
"Actually I kind of enjoyed it. Fuck them. They're in the spotlight, they're fair game."
"Any of them here tonight?"
"Well, there's Larry Rivers."
"Pepe? What's that? Spanish?"
"Italian. Like you. The diminutive of Pepino, which is the diminutive of Gioseppe, which was the name my old man gave me, I was born outside of Naples. Don't ask me how I ended up here."
"I was born in Brooklyn. Actually, Cubby and I were born in the same neighborhood and went to the same schools. But we dint know each other until later."
"He's a damned good writer, very courageous, I imagine that you are pretty much the same."
"I dunno. Maybe. Tell me about your drawings. You know, the ones that don't come up to those you do on the bar."
"I dunno. Kind of like cartoons, like, you know, a popular vernacular kind of thing."
"You like Krazy Kat?"
"Krazy Kat, I guess, yes, I just saw a book of his the other night. A bunch of artists were talking about him and then the host brought out his great book. I immediately went out and found a copy. Fifty fuckin' bucks it cost me, over a months rent."
"Great man. I have an original strip."
"Really. How'd you get that?"
"I just wrote a letter to King Syndicates telling them how much I love Krazy Kat and how I had to have an original if it was at all possible."
"And they sent you one?"
"Sort of. I had to sign an agreement to never reproduce it and I had to send them three hundred dollars."
"Worth every cent."
"I'll treasure it forever. Harriman was a fantastic poet. Rudy Burkhart, you know Rudy? Rudy has a copy of every strip ever published. A great collection."
"I like Rudy and his work. I especially liked his short film, What Mozart Saw on Bleeker Street."
"That's where a bust of Mozart is in a window?"
"Yeah, and he put the camera in the window right behind the bust and turned it on."
"But it was like edited." "Yeah, I guess that he..."
And so it went. Small talk. Two guys getting to know each other. He told me about his father and how he had abandoned the family when Gil was very young and was now a Capo in the Cosa Nostra in Florida. He did not like his father, he said, but he seemed to me to be proud that the old man was Mafioso.
I told him about my uncle, who I had lived with for awhile in St.Louis and about his connections with the Cosa Nostra, and how I worked as a shill in an illegal casino outside of St. Louis, but chickened out when I was offered a higher position. Visions of being gunned down on some dark deserted street, or of being ordered to do a hit.
He told me about his childhood in Brooklyn, how hard his mother had worked to support her family, how he had always wanted to be a writer and thought that he might be. He praised Joyce Cary and his novel 'The Horse's Mouth;' said it was the greatest book that he had read to date. He talked endlessly about James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Italo Svevo, and Robert Musil, who I'd never heard of.
He was intense and on fire. He only wanted to write, write, write, maybe a great book one day. When he asked me to name some musicians that I liked I said Hank Williams, who he had never heard of. I told him what I knew about Hank, he told me about how he and some friends would haunt jazz clubs, "because it was all so great, so great, we felt like we were participating in the music just by shouting a 'YEAH!' once in awhile". He had started by liking Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman but soon moved on to tougher works, things by Count Basie, by the be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and by 'The Bird' Charlie Parker.
I was flattered. This really interesting guy, a published writer, an editor at Grove Press, a friend of Robert Creely, Cubby Selby, Joel Oppenheimer, and LeRoi Jones, spending time with me, offering me his cigarettes (he was a chain smoker, lighting a fresh cigarette with the stub of the one he was smoking.)
The next day I bought a copy of 'Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things'. I loved it. I liked his writing, his style, his humor and his insights. I also understood why we had talked for so long and I now believed that what he had said was true, everyone of note in the bar hated him for what he said in that book. That's why he had spent so much time with me.
We saw each other once in awhile, in the bar. Then, as much as he loved the bar and the artist who hung out in it, he just stopped coming around. A few years later Mulligan Stew came out. That's when I realized that he was a very great writer indeed.
Gilbert Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1929. In 1956, Sorrentino founded the literary magazine Neon with friends from Brooklyn College, including friend Hubert Selby Jr. He edited Neon from 1956 to 1960, and then served as editor for Kulchur from 1961 to 1963. After working closely with Selby on the manuscript of Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). Sorrentino was an editor at Grove Press from 1965 to 1970, where one of his editorial projects was The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
He eventually took up positions at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University, the University of Scranton and the New School for Social Research in New York before being hired as a professor of English at Stanford University, where he served from 1982 to 1999.
His students included the novelists Jeffrey Eugenides and Nicole Krauss. His son, Christopher Sorrentino, is the author of the novels Sound on Sound and Trance.
Sorrentino's first novel, The Sky Changes, was published in 1966. Notable among his many other novels are Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Blue Pastoral, and Mulligan Stew.
The latter novel, a humorous post-modem romp, riffs on the metafictional possibilities introduced in Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim-Two-Birds, and is one of Sorrentino's most popular works.