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
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.