"To the novel—everyone’s novel—Sorrentino brings honor, tradition, and relentless passion."—Don DeLillo
Borrowing its title from a William Carlos Williams poem, A Strange Commonplace lays bare the secrets and dreams of characters whose lives are intertwined by coincidence and necessity, possessions and experience. Ensnared in a jungle of city streets and suburban bedroom communities from the boozy 1950s to the culturally vacuous present, lines blur between families and acquaintances, violence and love, hope and despair. As fathers try to connect with their children, as writers struggle for credibility, as wives walk out, and as an old man plays Russian roulette with a deck of cards, their stories resonate with poignancy and savage humor—familiar, tragic, and cathartic.
Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel, A Strange Commonplace (provided it can be called a novel), begins with this sentence, which tells us a little story in itelf:
After her husband left her for some floozie who was supposed to be an executive secretary at the crummy half-assed company he’d worked at for years without a raise or even so much as a bottle of cheap whiskey at Christmas, she packed up a few things, took the girl, and moved in with her cousin Janet on Gerritsen Avenue.
The rest of the book is essentially a process of Sorrentino reworking, revising, and reimagining the particulars of this ur-story; themes of lust, madness, incest, suicide are periodically introduced into this original narrative, then abandoned, only to reappear later on. As with much of what Sorrentino wrote, the book’s formal structure is an area of primary focus for reader and writer.
Pair of Deuces
He held a pair of deuces, a king of diamonds, a four of spades, and a seven of clubs. He drew three cards and waited to look to see if he’d got the third deuce. If he had drawn it, what? What would happen? What did he want to happen? Warren and Ray and Blackie were arranging their cards as best they could: Warren, shaking with palsy, Blackie, Jesus, Blackie had almost forgotten how to play the game, thought he was playing rummy half the time, and Ray, half-blind, who’d opened and drawn one card, looked irritated, so it was clear that the two low pair he’d probably been dealt had not miraculously become a full house. Even though he’d probably prayed to St. Anselm or St. Jude or the Blessed Virgin, or maybe the Infant Jesus of Prague. He’d Infant Jesus of Prague him right up his ass if he’d got his third deuce. And if he had, a big black Packard would appear on the lawn where they walked the pitiful Alzheimer’s patients around and around. He’d find his beautiful Borsalino on his shelf next to the idiotic baseball caps his daughter-in-law brought him; he’d make sure to lose them, but she brought more. They all had those logos or dim-witted messages on them. The one he liked best matter-of-factly stated: BORN TO LOVE TRAINED TO KILL. What an impossibly stupid woman she was. Well, he didn’t have to live with her. So, he’d have his Borsalino on, maybe that powder-blue tropical worsted suit he’d babied for years and years with the beautiful drape to the pants. He’d step into his Packard. That sweet young girl he’d got half-drunk with about three lifetimes ago in a bar off Gun Hill Road would be on the seat next to him in a little sun dress, a white sun dress. They’d finish what they started, oh the hell with it. What he really wanted to happen was for Warren and Blackie and Ray to disappear, for the Ridge Meadow Manor to disappear, and for himself to be as if he had never been: not to disappear, but to have never existed. Three deuces would do the trick. He looked at his cards, pushing the tight little booklet open with his thumb, card by card. The card that should have been his third deuce was a four of clubs. Ray, squinting as he laid his cards down, won, of course, with his lousy two pair. Well, all right. Tomorrow he’d try another magical route to oblivion.
and their lost children on gray and hopeless Saturdays: after the puppet shows and the botanical gardens, the parks, the zoos and rowboats; after the ice-cream sodas and hamburgers, the hot fudge sundaes and roller coasters, the Yoo-hoos and Shirley Temples; after the loose change pressed into the dirty, sticky little hands, the dollar bills; after the museums and museums and museums and pony rides, the Cracker Jacks and new sneakers and toy fire engines and dolls and hair ribbons and plastic barrettes; after the thin fake smiles and the small talk with the wives’ understanding and kind and reliable new boyfriends, the sharp words about meager child support and clothes for school; after ruining their shoes in the rain, after their sodden overcoats, the dark bars where nobody knows them but where the children get their 7-Ups on the house; after the introductions to Graces or Mollies or Annes or Elaines or Lindas or Charlottes or Anybodies dressed so as to look serious, so as to look like Moms, to look like Somebodies who could be Moms, who were just like Moms, just as good as Moms; after the long nights later over whiskey and beer and worries about how nothing had gone right; after the movies, the ice-cream parlors, the diners, the melted cheese sandwiches, the pizzas, the aimless walks; after the friends who say how big the children are getting, how pretty, how smart; after the long trips back to the wives’ little apartments in Bensonhurst or Washington Heights or Bay Ridge or Marine Park or Park Slope or the Lower East Side or Sunset Park or Brighton Beach, Ozone Park, Kew Gardens, anywhere; after the buses and the penny arcades, the boardwalks and amusement parks, the hot dogs and lost gloves and scarves and hats; after the boredom and tears and silences and bewilderment, the cheap souvenirs; after Snow White and Dumbo, Pinocchio and Tarzan and Mickey Mouse andDonald Duck; after the Neccos and Charms and Nibs and Black Crows and Baby Ruths and Milky Ways and Mounds; after the quarrels in hateful whispers because they were back too late or too early or because the children were too tired or over-excited or spoiled again, as usual; after the rages over who had been at fault, who had stopped caring about anything; after the old accusations of adultery and gambling, drunkenness and abandonment, withdrawal and frigidity and contempt, nights with phony friends, days with venomous bitches, yes! on the phone; after the discoveries of other men’s clothes in the closets, shoes, razors and after shave in the bathroom; after the nights watching television, playing records suddenly disliked, held in contempt, hated; after coming across old gifts given them by once-young, once-passionate, once-loving, once funny and warm and caring women who had been, was it possible? their wives; after shouting and cursing and blaming and suffering; after meandering affairs with secretaries and office assistants and receptionists, widowed or divorced neighbors, waitresses and God knows how many faceless unhappy women met at bars and parties and weddings and, Jesus, wakes; after the unbearable old photographs with their images of contentment and joy and love and now-harrowing smiles of optimism and hope and endless and wonderfully stupid youth; after all this, after walking from the subway in the rain, it seemed always in the fucking rain; after all this, the doomed, the hated Saturdays, again and again, the fathers remembered, in a dazzle of candor, the specific moments when the last tenuous links between them and their restless and distracted children began to dissolve, disintegrate, remembered their children in the act of fading away from them, fading into their actual lives: to which the fathers had no access, of which the fathers knew nothing at all and never would.
The fathers would sit with their beer and their whiskey, their Camels or Luckies or Chesterfields, their crossword puzzles and sour jingo political columns and imbecile horoscopes and righteous editorials and think about the time when they were not expected to be anything but simply alive. Alive and waiting for the glittering future: of beautiful wives and happy children and perfect lakes and summers and long vacations and bright beaches. And the absurd, wholly impossible bliss that awaited them, a thing of beauty.
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