Saturday, September 17, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Seeing Red (on Sorrentino's Red the Fiend)

by Douglas Messerli

Gilbert Sorrentino Red the Fiend (New York: Fromm International, 1995).

The son of an absent drunk of a father and a passive-aggressive mother, Red is offered up as the scapegoat for all of his Grandmother's rage. Smacked, whipped, systemically humiliated and degraded while his cowed Grandfather stands by, Red's anything but idyllic childhood mirrors the hardships his Irish-Catholic Depression-era family suffers. Grandma's frustrations stem from a lifetime of disappointment. Before she was consumed by bitterness, life held promise for her. Now someone must bear the burden of blame for the failure of her hopes, and Grandma is ingenious at devising methods to inflict the pain on Red, turning the boy from victim into monster, Red the Fiend.

On one level this is a painful book, as Red is tortured through childhood in various ways. But Sorrentino's work also functions almost as a fable of American fears, akin to our terror of the political kind of “Red,” directed toward those who seemingly stand in our way of a better life. And on that level, observing the various punishments directed at the enemy, Sorrentino's short novel is hilariously absurd.

Los Angeles, 1995

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