the devastating ending of gilbert sorrentino’s red the fiend

Гилберт Соррентино Изверг Род Red the Fiend

Cover of Russian edition of Red the Fiend (2003)

After 200-plus pages of abuse from his Grandmother and neglect from his Mother, the transformation of Red the boy into Red the Fiend is finally complete:


Red is plunged into misery when it occurs to him that photographs of Grandma, taken when she was young, show clearly that she looked then almost exactly the way Mother looks now.


The corpse of a rabid dog, shot by a cop on the corner of the Cities Service station, looks to Red so remarkably peaceful that even the shining flies clustered and buzzing on his bloody head cannot dispel the sense of calm surrounding him, the stillness, the repose, the hush.

On a photograph of Grandma standing beneath a tree, smiling yet severe in a fur coat and cloche, red, in careful letters, writes DIRTY OLD CUNT. He props the photograph against the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, and goes in to sit on the couch, to wait quietly for Grandma and Mother. Ecstatic, he feels the world on the edge of obliteration.


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.




“grandma smiles her malevolent smile, displaying both her gold tooth and her brownish-black tooth”

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend is a harrowing account of a few months in the hellish life of “Red,” a twelve-year old boy who endures on a daily basis physical and verbal abuse from his maternal grandmother.


In his book of essays, Something Said, Sorrentino observes that the writers with whom he most identifies:


agreed with my own artistic necessities, which are: an obsessive concern with formal structure, a dislike of the replication of experience, a love of digression and embroidery, a great pleasure in false or ambiguous information, a desire to invent problems that only the invention of new forms can solve, and a joy in making mountains outof molehills.



Under the Shadow

Gilbert Sorrentino




Grandma smiles her malevolent smile, displaying both her gold tooth and her brownish-black tooth. She wonders, again, if someone might go down to the cellar storage bin and get her something.

She wants something.

Perhaps a hot-water bottle. An ice bag. A moth-eaten blanket. A chipped egg cup. Something personal, some treasure, something to bring back memories of her innocent childhood, her winsome first days as a new bride. God knows, they didn’t last long.

At the thought of the hot-water bottle, the ice bag, Red brightens internally, secretly, for such need may possibly signal pain somewhere in Grandma’s body. He takes care to show nothing in his flat, brutal face. Pain that might foreshadow, perhaps, death itself, although Red does not even think this word.


Grandma says that it is out of the question for Grandpa to go because he’s been working hard all day as he works hard every day to keep a roof over Red’s and his tramp of a Mother’s ungrateful heads. He has been working, today, like a nigger. That famous nigger!


And Grandma says, smiling, her teeth again defining the poles of death and artifice, that Red’s Mother can’t go. She’s not finished doing the dishes yet and then she has to scrub the kitchen floor and then the bathroom from top to bottom. Somebody, God knows who, got it filthy today, just washing. Washing! How anybody can get a bathroom so filthy just washing his hands and face, and not a face to brag about either, is beyond Grandma. Grandpa nods, signaling that it’s beyond him too. Grandpa has been famously working this day like the famous nigger.


Grandma looks at Red and has a sudden inspiration. Red can go down to the cellar and get the something that Grandma wants! But Red is afraid, so he says, of the storage bins, they are dark and haunted, monsters find themselves attracted to the weak lights that tenants use to illuminate their doings. They eat boys or parts of boys, and chew on their things. Red tells Grandma that he’s afraid and Grandma looks as if she is about to have a heart attack, her eyelids flutter, her hand touches her sagging bosom, she looks wildly around the apartment, reaching shakily for the glass Grandpa has just refilled with beer, as if an explanation for this refusal may somehow be discovered, somewhere, for this confession of fear, this lack of respect. Grandma takes a swallow of beer and cracks a pretzel on her bottom front teeth, then suggests that Red cannot be afraid because he is not afraid of anything, ishe? Wasn’t he brazen enough to open Grandma’s dresser drawer, her forbidden dresser drawer, so that he could look at a color postcard of the Budd Lake Casino? Her thin patent-leather belt taught him a lesson that day. Brazen, yes, brazen is the word, too brazen to cry.


Mother comes out of the kitchen and Red looks at her hopelessly. She looks at Grandma, who tells her that there’s not enough beer left for her to have a glass, so she may as well start on the kitchen floor that her clumsy brazen son has marked up, out of spite, with his cheap black-rubber heels. Grandma shakes her head pityingly, and as if in wonder that anyone in the good old USA in the year 1940 could wear such cheap shoes. It’s not as if they’re wops. Mother’s eyes are flat and dull.


Red suddenly stands up and says that he’ll go down but he’d like to know what Grandma wants him to get. He talks loudly and with great confidence. Grandma smiles and holds out the key to the bin door’s padlock. Her smile grows larger as she tells Red that he’llknow just what she wants as soon as he sees it because if it were any plainer it would bite him. Red is a smart boy, stupid in school, but, God bless the mark, he can’t help that, thanks to his shanty-Irish bum of a drunken Father. The boy can’t help it!


As Red leaves, Grandma tells him not to take the flashlight because batteries are dear and money does not grow on trees but has to be earned by Grandpa who works like a coolie. Like a nigger and a coolie. Oh, Grandpa works.


There’s a candle end in the bin and a box of matches. Red is to take care that he uses no more than one match. Money has to be sweated for by the nigger coolie. Who nods.


Deep in the rear of the bin, Red finds an old photograph album, its leather binding dry and powdery, covered with dust. Attached to it by a rubber band is a packet of photographs. He thinks for a moment, stiff with fright as he watches the weird shadows on the walls, feels his legs wobble, weak beneath him, and decides that this is what Grandma wants. He puts it under his arm and blows out the candle. His bowels feel dangerously loose.


Grandma is warmly astonished, and wipes her beery fingers on her greyly dirty housedress. The packet is exactly what she wanted! So, Red can overcome his stupidity whenever he puts his mind to it. Red beams and preens, thankful. He is about to explain his abstruse methods of reasoning, his methodical process of elimination, when Grandma laughs girlishly, one of her more horrifying laughs, and announces that since Red is afraid of nothing, it will be his permanent job to make all necessary trips to the bin. How does Red like that? Suddenly, Grandma stops laughing, her face darkens, shrivels, and she looks, amazed, at the packet of photographs. Then she says, as Red knows, as he has known all along that she will say, that these are the wrong photographs. There is nothing else for Red to do but take these wrong photographs back to the bin and look for the right photographs, no matter how long it takes. Grandma holds the wrong photographs out to Red, shaking them back and forth impatiently. Now.


A grotesque smile on his face, Red takes a step toward Grandma and completely loses control of his bowels. Beneath Grandma’s incredulous and disgusted scowl is a faint expression of delight.