Gilbert Sorrentino, 77; Avant-Garde Novelist, Professor

Times Staff Writer

Gilbert Sorrentino once wrote, “If you make a better book the world will build a mousetrap at your door.”

With one exception over a five-decade writing career, the mousetrap was always at Sorrentino’s door.

The author of 15 novels -- including a parodist’s feast called “Mulligan Stew” -- Sorrentino was a master of avant-garde fiction whose work was admired by other writers. That the world never beat a path to his door did not unduly concern him. That most critics found him hard to peg bothered him more, but their neglect made no appreciable dent in his prolific career on the imaginative rim of American letters.


“Sorrentino was an American master,” novelist Don DeLillo said Tuesday of the longtime Stanford University professor of literature and creative writing, who was 77 at his death Thursday in New York City. The cause was complications of lung cancer.

“His work has humor, anger, passion and deep-reaching memory. But he wrote against the times,” DeLillo said, “against the pressure to be commercially successful. There was an edge in his work that wasn’t always easy to accept.”

Said Bradford Morrow, a novelist and editor of the literary journal Conjunctions: “I think of him as a contemporary Swift. Writers adore him. He just didn’t do the right move to get famous, like a Norman Mailer barroom brawl. Sorrentino was very retiring. And he was not going to court the culture he was attacking.”

Sorrentino’s novels could be surreal, erotic and always humorous. His characters were surface-deep, the better to mock their motives, desires and dreams. As befitting a postmodernist, he chose forms that contrived to puncture expectations, leading readers into what one reviewer called “one hall of mirrors after another.”

Sorrentino wrote eight volumes of poetry in addition to the novels, and also had worked as an editor. He founded a literary magazine called Neon in 1956 and was an editor at Kulchur magazine in the early 1960s before joining Grove Press, where he edited Alex Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

He eventually left publishing for academia, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York before Stanford hired him in 1982. “He had a sharp wit and did not suffer fools gladly,” recalled Jonathan Mayhew, a student of Sorrentino in the mid-1980s who now is a professor at the University of Kansas.

He stayed at Stanford for 20 years, despite a strong aversion to California culture. On his arrival, he grudgingly learned to drive -- at age 53 -- but remained “completely bollixed by the suburban lifestyle,” Sorrentino, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, told Publishers Weekly a few years ago. “The happiest day of my life was when I sold my car” just before returning to his native Brooklyn in 2002.

“He was like a fish out of water in California,” said his son, Christopher, also a novelist. Sorrentino is also survived by his wife, Victoria Ortiz; another son, Jesse; and three grandchildren. A daughter, Delia, died three years ago.

The son of a Sicilian immigrant, Sorrentino grew up in a working-class environment. He attended Brooklyn College for two years, which were interrupted by service in the Army Medical Corps from 1951 to 1953. By then he knew that he wanted to be a writer and embarked on what he later described as “this massive, hopeless novel,” which remained in the drawer after he finished it.

He put out two volumes of poetry -- much of it inspired by New York and its people -- before turning out his first published novel, “The Sky Changes,” in 1966. A story about a miserably married couple on a trip across America, it is told out of sequence because “there really is no past that is worse than the present and there is no future that will be better than the present,” Sorrentino told the Grosseteste Review in 1973.

His later novels continued to experiment with form. “Steelwork” (1970), inspired by Sorrentino’s Brooklyn childhood, “is made up of 96 separate but interlocking dramatic vignettes, scenes which, in their arrangement within the novel, scramble chronology,” critic Jerome Klinkowitz wrote. His last novel, “Little Casino” (2002) has unnamed characters and stops arbitrarily at 52 chapters -- the number of weeks in a year. “All form is utterly artificial,” he declared in an interview.

Such departures from convention annoyed many critics, such as Jeffrey A. Frank, who wrote in the Washington Post in 1990 that Sorrentino “is an acquired taste.”

In “Mulligan Stew,” Sorrentino pulled out all the stops. A mulligan stew is a mishmash of ingredients, little bits of lots of things. Sorrentino’s novel combines what critic Michael Dirda described as “morsels for every literary taste,” parodies of forms including cheap detective fiction, the western, bad poetry and pornography.

Critics called it his masterpiece.

Kenneth John Atchity, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said “Mulligan Stew” was a “singular event in the history of wit and imagination.” Dirda, in the Washington Post, wrote that it “contains some of the best parodies since S.J. Perelman at his most manic, and perhaps the most corrosive satire of the literary scene since early Aldous Huxley.” John Leonard, in the New York Times, wrote: “There is a very real question as to whether avant-garde fiction can survive Gilbert Sorrentino’s new novel.” The New York Times Book Review named it one of the best books of 1979.

The main character is a writer of middling success named Lamont, and the novel contains Lamont’s novel-in-progress. The surreal aspect is that Lamont’s characters lead their own lives when Lamont leaves his desk. The well-read reader would glean their heritage: One character, Ned Beaumont, is from Dashiell Hammett’s “The Glass Key”; Daisy and Tom Buchanan are from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”; and Dick Halpin once worked for a “Mr. Joyce” -- in a footnote in James Joyce’s colossal “Finnegans Wake.”

When Lamont’s novel collapses, his characters abandon him.

Such utter failure may have been Sorrentino’s fear. He received 28 rejection notices for “Mulligan Stew” before Grove embraced it in 1979.

He was famous for a brief period, then fell into obscurity again, publishing 10 more novels with small presses that were barely noticed by critics.

“He just didn’t care ... if people didn’t get it. He was always his own man,” said Morrow, who knew Sorrentino for more than two decades.

Or, as Halpin says to his fellow characters before he deserts Lamont: “To you other cats and chicks out there ... a shake and a hug and a kiss and a drink. Cheers!”