The Sky Changes by Gilbert Sorrentino

I’ve only read one road-trip book before. Quirky, girl-gets-over-old-love, meets-new-love, feel-good but-not-too-good, lots of asides about those bits of the US y’all laugh at. Not my cup of tea, though it sold lots of copies and it won’t surprise me if the movie version pops up on your (sic) netflix menu.

I didn’t realise, when I opened this that it was a road-trip novel. For a start, it takes some pages to figure out what’s going on. And I found the poetry of it stopped any flow. It has an Under Milkwood beguiling sense that it should be read aloud. I would read a couple of pages and then go back and read it aloud in my head. Maybe half way through the book I stopped doing that, and I’m not sure if that was just taking for granted what earlier distracted me, or if the style of writing somewhat changes. I should note that I read the 1986 edition, a revision of the 1966 edition, itself the author’s first novel.

Feel good (but not too good), girly lit this is not. I’m not surprised to see that he takes on the mantle and the cause of William Carlos Williams: the similarities are obvious. For more on Sorrentino’s work and his relationship with WCW, see Ken Bolton’s article in Jacket Magazine.

It you read Sorrentino’s wiki page, you are immediately hit by ‘post-modernist’ and ‘meta-fiction’ and that makes you go to goodreads with a sneaking feeling….yes, the only one of your friends to have reviewed this is MJ. Fortunately I only did this after finishing the book. Post-modern? Meta-fiction? Absolutely not – and perhaps that’s why MJ excoriated it after his first reading. It’s just a straightforward tale of the breakdown of social relations at a time we now remember fondly for the social devastation wreaked. I wonder if you needed to be closer in generation to that period in order to feel the heat of this book? Sorrentino muses on the nature of memory. I love this:

If they hadn’t built that fucking house we would have stayed, he thought, we would have stayed and everything would have been OK. What he meant by OK was that everything would have remained in its long-ago attained state of rot, but it would have been submerged rot. He needed, however, the monumentally trite fable of the good old days to avoid their drab truth, in his heart he suspected, even, that the time would come when he would speak, and perhaps even think, of this trip as fun, as adventure, this very moment would become part of the good old days.

This book is incredibly dense, it’s short but has so much in it. His inept relationship with his kids, the false nature of friendship. The pissing away of life – through alcohol in particular – that was integral to the scene he is part of. The changing geography and social fabric of the America they pass through as they head from NY to Mexico. The North South divide. Lying and denial as the basis of relationships. It’s quite misleading to talk of this as a book about divorce. It is about relationships of all sorts and their fraught, dishonest bases.

Sex. I try to recall the last time I read a book where the sex was well-done and I come up with 2011, Vox by Nicholson Baker. That was trivial, this is desperate and will speak to everybody who reads it.

They are on a mattress on the floor. Their children are in a bed beside them, it is black in the room. His fingers touch her thigh, they move up to her cunt. She moves beneath them, not movements in space, but within her own body, a tension, a tightening. That he thought it would be different. What did he think, that in southern air something would happen? Or what else did he think? that in a strange house, that on the floor, that this adventure would make things change, would make her move toward him, warmly, her flesh soft? Her flesh is rigid, she is stone, she says if he wants to but the children. Howling secrets writhe in her brain, she stays rigid, what does she know, what does she want, that she cannot speak of it? If he wants to but. To say that. A kind of insanity, that is. Certainly. An insanity. His fingers are ddep in her pubic thatch and she says that. Yes, he says. The voice that he hears seems to come from somewhere behind him, so that he actually looks over his shoulder. Yes, then he knows it is coming from him, it is not someone else in the room, not the driver peering at them, answering for him. He moves on her, she lies quite still, he pries her lips apart with his tongue, her teeth are clenched, she opens them slightly, here hands rest lightly on his shoulders, she is still and he is pumping on her, she is still, he thinks of what he must look like, he thinks of that she is thinking of what he must look like, she has plenty of opportunity to think there, so still. He moves faster, harder, he thinks that he might make her come, she does not want to come, she has turned off the switch, she turned it off the moment she lay down on the mattress. He feels himself coming, blinded with fury. What happens that he comes and it is vinegar? The spasm that shakes him is one of anger, she can’t help him. She won’t try, she is throttled by secrets that have fixed her someplace else. That’s what has happened. He moans. She strokes his back, she feigns a movement of her belly, but her hips alone move. He has finished coming, he supposes. For when did it start, he cannot tell, it is almost the same, orgasm almost the same. He hears the driver turn in his sleep, he hears his children breathing. In some madness he asks her if she came. In the same madness she says no. They clutch at each other. Tell me! his brain screams, tell me! Who are you, whose children are those, tell me that which burns white in you, that turns your eyes to marble, glass. Why are you searching for my hand? His son gives a quiet cry. What dreams he walks through are no more fantastic than this searching hand. While their hearts crumble.

The driver. I envy those who have never had one of those in their lives. I did once and suffered all the doubts, denials and torments of the husband here. The hatred of others and self. I love the way the people are named. The husband, the wife, the driver, the son, the daughter. W and R and W’s son and so on. Far from making this impersonal, it permits it to be everybody’s life. You will slip into this story.

Moral, non-didactic, observation. The scene where their host S throws a spear he has fashioned from a branch into a goose. In front of the children.

They walk in silence. Cruelty surrounds them, the children are changed in his eyes, the obscure misery that hurts them, though they have no word for it, is guilt. S and the husband have full awareness of it. Their guilt. S’s act, the husband’s inability to say even one word to him, or better yet, splash into the water and pull the torture instrument from the hapless bird, the children swing against the greying sky, no more is said, they are in the centre of the United States of America and their host is a college instructor. In the humanities.

The description later of the husband forcing his son to box another host’s son. I wonder what sort of movie this would make? Why not? Do road trip  movies have to be trivial?

Flashback to their first sex.

He was so drunk that he thought the top of her garter belt was a girdle and he was struggling to pull it down, when she said, no, no, it’s all right, and he looked down at her spread thighs and the dark swatch between them. Somewhere to their right he heard W and his girl laughing and the clink of a bottle against pebbles. He pushed himself into her, deliriously happy, the first time! The first time after all these months of courting. He came instantly, and forever after she thought of him as a bad lay. He lay back on the cool grass, the wind from the bay cold against his wet genitals; he watched her pull up her panties and adjust her skirt and he loved her, felt that since he had seen her do this thing in front of him, she was his, completely his. He lit a cigarette and wondered how W was making out with his girl, a girl he detested for her simpering pretensions to intelligence. Not like his girl. They loved each other. Hadn’t she pulled up her panties in front of him? Hadn’t she smiled? What was love if not that?

Perfect preservation of a period. I could write out this whole book here. I’m so glad MJ recanted.

And, in fact, with Christmas 2018 about to descend upon us, I must share one more excerpt. The husband is young, with his mother, it’s Christmas Eve in Brooklyn, NY.

He was delighted because his mother asked him if he’d like French fries for supper, and he loved French fries. The house was cold and he and she sat in the kitchen, the oven on to warm them. His grand-father had been over, brought a little artificial tree, the decorations permanently attached to it, and it was set in the living room. His mother peeled the potato, sliced it, and pan-fried it, served it to him with ketchup, and bread and margarine. The whole potato? he said, mom? The whole potato for me, don’t you want any? She said, no, son, I’m not hungry, you eat it, I’ll have a sandwich later, after you go to sleep and Santa comes. He finished the potato, then poured ketchup on a piece of bread and made a sandwich, ate it with tea. His mother put him to bed, and he fell asleep, thinking of Santa, and electric trains, except that his mother said that electric trains only went to boys in the country because in the city they had the subway. It must be true, none of his friends had trains. He woke up in the night, and heard a noise in the living room, sneaked to the door to catch Santa, and saw his mother placing a little metal pig, dressed in a sailor suit, under the tree. The pig and a drum, and then he saw his mother sit on the couch and begin to cry. He wondered why the tree didn’t have any lights, and he wondered why his mother had put the pig under the tree – he hadn’t asked for a pig, that was for babies. And why was she crying? Well, Santa wasn’t her yet. In the morning, the pig stared at him, and he picked it up, wound it with the key sticking out of its blue jumper. He put it down, and it bounced and clattered on the linoleum spastically, pounding on the tin drum. He couldn’t understand why he had this pig, and why Santa hadn’t come, after all…he hadn’t come, because his mother had put the pig under the tree. And why was she crying? The pig skittered to a stop and fell over, and he saw his mother in the doorway, do you like your present, son? she said. Yes, he said, winding it up again. It would take him a long time to figure this out. Who wants a toy pig?

Merry Christmas, everybody.


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