He’s the greatest Bay Ridge author you’ve never heard of, lit fans say.
Some bookish types are celebrating the life and work of lesser-known Ridge author Gilbert Sorrentino with a reading at Saint Francis College on April 24. Sorrentino was born and died in Bay Ridge (with a stint teaching at Stanford university in between), and turned a lovingly critical eye on his home ’hood in many of his novels. Here are a few standout selections featuring the beautiful 11209.
Bay Ridge itself is roundly considered the main character in this collection of vignettes. Focused on Bay Ridge from 1935 to 1950, the novel offers a “sharply etched and chronologically shuffled vignettes of working-class Brooklyn types gradually corrupted by wartime and postwar prosperity,” according to Sorrentino devotee and Doubleday editor Gerald Howard.
Sorrentino’s 13-page short story exposes the physical and cultural isolation his lovelorn protagonist feels living in the relatively homogenous and far-flung reaches of Bay Ridge in 1948. Returning from a date with an upper-crust Bronxite, the working-class protagonist refuses to even think of his love in Bay Ridge’s confines “so that he would not have to place her subtle finesse in these streets of vulgar hells, benedictions, and incense.”
Sorrentino profiles Red, a Catholic boy living on 68th Street, as he descends into savagery at the hands of his abusive grandmother. Sorrentino “recreates with immaculate care Red’s brutally dysfunctional family and the dangerous city streets (circa 1940) into which the boy escapes,” according to a 1994 Publisher’s Weekly review.
All 78 of the vignettes comprising “Crystal Vision” take place in a Bay Ridge candy shop. Sorrentino loads the novel with delicious historical tidbits, like a list of old-timey Brooklyn candies, and at one point, “characters argue, with hilariously excruciating specificity, about the names of the series of parks that stretch about a mile from Fort Hamilton Parkway to the shore,” neighborhood scribe Henry Stewart wrote in a 2014 piece for Electric Lit.
Stacked like a deck of cards, “Little Casino” offers 52 little episodes centered on post-war Bay Ridge. You may never get to meet Sorrentino for coffee at the Bridgeview Diner (he died in 2006), but his familiar style and commentary on each chapter are the next best thing.