chapter two of gilbert sorrentino’s red the fiend

book cover of 

Red the Fiend 


Gilbert Sorrentino

Set in the early 1940s, Sorrentino’s Red The Fiend is unstinting in its portrayal of a brutal, dysfunctional Irish-American family. Red, the adolescent protagonist, lives with his mother in his grandparents’ dingy Brooklyn home. The constant target of his grandmother’s sadistic urges, Red seeks escape into the dangerous city streets.



chapter two of sorrentino’s red the fiend


Since Grandma knows that Red is conscienceless and thoroughly depraved, it falls to him to kill the mice that have been caught but not killed in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. Grandma and Grandpa—and, halfheartedly, Red’s Mother—know that he is as black as sin itself because of the terrible something that happened on the roof with that idiot daughter of the bohunk super of the adjoining building. Not that there’s any bohunks with half a brain to begin with. But when a good Irish Catholic boy who’s made his First Communion—and he looked almost presentable in the blue serge suit that Grandpa spent good money for, God help the poor man!—mortifies his grandparents, who took him in off the street and kept him and his Mother out of the poorhouse, and a lot of thanks they get for it!, mortifies them with his filthy sinful acts, it’s not the idiot girl who can be blamed. Not that Grandma didn’t drive Red’s mother to tears scolding her to do the right thing and go over and talk to the unfortunate lump of a man about his slut of a daughter, a twelve-year-old tramp, idiot or not, and threaten him with the police if he can’t keep an eye on her. 


Grandma says, again, that’s that all these bohunks and scowegians and greaseballs understand, a big Irish bruiser of a cop, not one, God help us, like Jimmy Kenny with his lard ass, to scare some decency into them and their disgusting families. Can’t speak two words of English, any of them. Damn shame what this country’s coming to. And Mother has to punish Red, too, does the woman, who can’t even hold on to a man who was halfway decent when she married him, think that Grandma should always be the one to discipline the boy? Does Grandma have to do all the dirty work? She’s had her child and raised her, much good it did her. She’s got her cross to bear, although not many know it, for she never complains.


Had Mother put her foot down when the man started to come home drunk every night from work, and sometimes not come home at all, things might have been different. Now she’s a divorced woman, a sinner in the eyes of the Church, not much better than the floozies who hang around with the bookmakers in front of Gallagher’s. And God only knows—Grandma gazes at the ceiling with an expression of fierce piety—God … Only … Knows … what the truth of the matter is that drove the poor hardworking dumbbell of a man to drink. More there, Grandma says, a catch in her voice, than meets the eye. Grandpa nods and relights the cigarette butt he has already stubbed out twice. They’re not made of money!


Red, the degenerate, the corrupt, the sinful, opens the door of the cabinet, from which have issued scraping and scratching noises. Behind a can of Drano is a half-dead mouse, his crushed, bloody snout and right front paw caught between the steel bar and wooden base of the trap. Grandma tells Red to do the job that she knows he loves to do, abnormal little morphodite that he is. And Grandma will not have Red flushing the mouse down the toilet! Drowning is the crudest of deaths.


Grandpa adds that when you drown your lungs fill with water and explode and you feel everything. The mouse is to be battered to death quickly, any way Red wishes. He is sure to think of something, since he loves such things, says Grandma.


Red picks up the trap and flings it on the floor. The mouse squeaks and its body twitches, but it does not die. Red throws the trap on the floor again, harder, and the mouse goes into convulsions. But it is still alive. Grandma remarks on Red’s almost unbelievable cruelty, Grandpa shakes his head and leaves the room, Mother, anguished, looks at Red’s flushed face. Red desperately throws the trap up to the ceiling and after it hits the floor this time, the mouse is still.  Red pokes at the body with his foot and Grandma looks at Mother and rolls her eyes atthis instance of sadism. She says that the mouse is to be disposed of, but not down the toilet as she does not want the filth and germs from the dead thing in her spotless bathroom that Mother just scrubbed this morning, does Red think that his Mother is a nigger maid? And, as usual, the trap is to be scrubbed with laundry soap, reset, and put back in the cabinet. And, Grandma smiles wisely, Red is not to eat any of the store cheese when he baits the trap.


Red, as depraved as always, rudely shakes the broken corpse onto a peace of newspaper and considers how remote the mouse seems now, and peaceful. He rolls the lucky little bastard up in the sheet of paper.