Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Gilbert Sorrentino's Bay Ridge: A Guided Tour

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

Gilbert Sorrentino's Bay Ridge: A Guided Tour

Article excerpt

In 1975, the journalist Nik Cohn published an article in New York magazine titled "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night;' a work of mock-sociological observation of the disco-inferno weekend recreations of the culturally limited and recession beset outer borough youth of Bay Pddge, Brooklyn. ]he scene of the revels was a discotheque named 200 h A Space Odyssey, and the master of the dance floor was a flashy Italian-American named Tony Manero. As it much later emerged, "Tony Manero" was an entirely fabricated character, but, at the time, nobody noticed, including me--I'd grown up in Bay Ridge dealing with just such types. The article was adapted into the film Saturday Night Fever, shot on location (Tony, the ur-guido, lives on the street where I once did), and it became such a global box office sensation that I imagine a billion-plus people have watched John Travolta strut down Eighty-Sixth Street to the Bee Gees soundtrack, paint cans swinging.

The Bay Ridge portrayed in the article and film is by no means completely inaccurate, but it relies heavily on cultural stereotyping and lacks any sense that the characters might in fact have inner lives of any complexity. There is no record of Gilbert Sorrentino, a Bay Ridge native who wrote about its indigenes with unsurpassable intimacy, ever having delivered an opinion about Saturday Night Fever, which is a shame, because I can easily imagine how scaldingly funny he would have been about its cluelessness on class, its ethnic prejudices and Manhattan-centric snobbery, and its shaky grasp of human particulars. We can confidently state that however wildly superior Sorrentino's portrayal of Bay Ridge is to the movie's, his books command considerably less than one percent of its audience--a melancholy fact to which I'm not sure he ever quite reconciled himself. Brooklyn is not lacking in literary bards and chroniclers, but I would make the claim that no other writer on or from the borough had a richer, deeper understanding of his or her patch of asphalt. Especially of the speech and thought patterns of Bay Ridgites, who may not make it into "the city" all that much, but whose dreams and delusions and sins and virtues ate given precise weight and scale. Cue up the inevitable comparison to James Joyce's Dublin--but as an aboriginal Bay Ridgite myself, born and bred and escaped from, I speak with some authority in drawing the parallel.

I was twenty-one years old in 1972, when I crash-landed back in Bay Ridge, having graduated from my Ivy League college (it felt more like being banished), back in my parents' house with no prospects and no plans. The horror, the horror. In this grim mood I was given a copy of Gil's second novel, Steelwork, which was set in, mirabile dictu, Bay Ridge and presents an unsentimental but not unsympathetic portrait of a group of locals from 1935 through 1951 as they kill time, get loaded, shoot the shit, get laid (of more often try to), get loaded, bowl, shoot pool, trade sexual boasts and misinformation, go to the movies, get loaded, work, shirk work, daydream, get loaded, die. Jesus H. Christ! This guy Gilbert Sorrentino had taken the dismal raw material of the sorry-ass backwater I'd had the misfortune to be born in and so desperately wanted to leave, and turned it into a work of literature. And it was exactly right in every geographical particular, not just right but astonishingly detailed. (The cover of the Pantheon hardcover is, in fact, a stylization of the street sign for the comer of Sixty-Eighth Street and Fourth Avenue.) This was a revelation, to say the least, and a chastening rebuke to my callow college-boy disdain.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I have been reading Gilbert Sorrentino ever since, savoring the way he has returned time and again to his neighborhood subject matter, always in a shiftingly prismatic and infallibly tough-minded fashion. I even got to interview Gil for a critical profile in Bookforum, in Bay Ridge, at the Bridgeview Diner on

Third Avenue a few blocks from his co-op apartment on Shore Road. …

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