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April 28, 2015
What happens when a powerful literary influence passes away? How long until the world feels the loss? Because not all deceased artists are immortalized — their collected works don’t necessarily hit the top of the New York Times Best Seller list posthumously. Sometimes all that is left are the impressions left behind.
In author/poet/critic Gilbert Sorrentino’s case, those whom he impressed upon happen to be some of the best writers alive today.
On April 27, an illustrious panel of contemporary authors graced St. Joseph’s College to celebrate the last event of our 2014-2015 Brooklyn Voices season: The First Annual Gilbert Sorrentino Birthday Tribute.
"The task before us is to jumpstart the Gilbert Sorrentino revival. And if we do this thing right you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren ‘I was there at Tuohy Hall the night it all started,’” said Gerald Howard, the evening’s host, a friend and fan of Sorrentino, and Doubleday executive editor. “And I have to say Tuohy — the name Tuohy — just has the right sound for a Brooklyn event.”
Howard, like Sorrentino, is a Bay Ridge Brooklynite and spoke at length about the Sorrentino’s works, as well as the Brooklyn neighborhood he loved.
Eighty-six years ago, on April 27, Gilbert Sorrentino was born in Bay Ridge. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including Guggenheim Fellowships in Fiction in 1973 and 1987, the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature (1981), PEN/Faulkner Award finalist in 1981 and 2003, the Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (declined, 1982), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature (1985), the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (1992), and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He died in Brooklyn on May 18, 2006.
“For all that, true literary fame eluded him,” Howard said. “None of his books ever got near the best seller list. He never forgot or tried to hide his roots. He understood the dynamic and class of this country better than any of his contemporaries.”
An expanse of authors took their turns at the podium reiterating this fact. Sharing their thoughts on Sorrentino’s impact before reading his prose to the audience.
The impressive panel included Mark Chiusano (Marine Park), Joshua Cohen (A Heaven of Others), Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld, etc.), Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts), Gilbert Sorrentino’s son Christopher Sorrentino (Trance), assistant editor at Opera News Henry Stewart and journalist James Walcott, cultural critic of Vanity Fair.
Henry Stewart, among others, briefed the crowd on the experience of the Bay Ridge neighborhood Sorrentino called home.
“Sorrentino’s Bay Ridge was no artist’s colony. The streets in his Brooklyn books are home to a culture of pool rooms and taverns and candy stores. They’re populated by the unhappily married, the miserably attached — by vets and neighbors and middle managers — who [Sorrentino] succinctly describes as tough, flexible and distrustful of crude iron.”
Don DeLillo, a close friend of Sorrentino, spoke eloquently of his fond memories of the time, the neighborhood, and his friend.
“Gil was a man who possessed the strength of purpose,” DeLillo said. “His work itself is diverse, daring, often funny, often moving.
“What do we say about a missing friend? Two lines from a Sorrentino poem: How easily language collapses into memory right before your fingertips, your aging eyes.”
To read more about The Brooklyn Voices series, click here for our previous guest, philosopher Richard Singer.