from The Abyss of Human Illusion

Gilbert Sorrentino


Most of his friends were dead or far away, staggering into the apathy and complaint of old age. He was, that is, virtually alone, his wife dead for many years, his children distantly attentive, formally so, but no more than that. When he thought of his youth he could scarcely believe that his memories had anything at all to do with the absurd life he was now living, an observation, he knew, that was far from original. Somehow, he had thought that his old age would miraculously produce finer, subtler notions of — what? — life? But he was no better, no cleverer, no more insightful than any shuffling old bastard in the street, absurdly bundled against the slightest breeze.

He didn’t know, or knew but refused to believe, that the celebrations and joys, the razzmatazz, so to speak, of his youth and young manhood, were perhaps perversely, yet precisely, what had brought him to this disquiet, this discomfort, this hidden and unacknowledged longing for oblivion. Had his youth been another sort of youth.... But it had not been, it had been his and his alone, and its clichés and blunders had led, almost sweetly, to the clichés and blunders of his senescence. Time to go and leave the world to the young, happily wallowing in the mess he’d left as a small part of their general inheritance.


He loves a girl, who, as it turns out, does not love him, and so he wastes years of his life trapped in a wretched cliché. This is, as everyone knows, the oldest of news. At the time that he met the unattainable girl, another girl, whom he treated with a distant, friendly formality, tinged with a benign contempt, adored him and would have done anything for him, had he but asked. She was, as they say, “the girl for him.” This is but more old news.

But since life is, essentially, and maddeningly, a series of mistakes, bad choices, various stupidities, accidents, and unbelieveable coincidences, everything played itself out just as it should have; although a shift this way or that in this young man’s life, an evening at a friend’s house avoided, a day at the beach cut short because of rain — anything you can dream up, the more absurd the better — would have led to wholly different results, each one of which would have played itself out precisely the way it should have. There is no way to bargain with life, for life’s meaning is, simply, itself. Perhaps this is why one society after another relentlessly invents its gods and the byzantine complexities of the religions in which those gods are enclosed forever: somebody to talk to, to cajole, to beg and bribe. That nothing helps doesn’t matter, for, most importantly, the gods can be blamed. They “work in mysterious ways.”


The man was sexually and emotionally attracted to young mothers and had spent his adult life in pursuing and, when he could, seducing them; he’d left a lot of wreckage behind. He met a woman, the mother of two boys, seven and five, a woman who was the wife of a casual friend. They “ran off together,” as they used to say, leaving the two boys with their father, who was, not surprisingly, angry, bewildered, and, for the moment, heartbroken. The new couple soon had a child of their own, but the fact that the young woman was now the mother of her seducer’s child ruined everything for him, and he left one day in their old Ford station wagon, a sun-faded lime green monster that might well have served as a sad counter for their dead amour.

He took $147.34, all the money that was in the coffee can in the refrigerator of the wretched St. Louis apartment in which they lived, all the money that they had. Nobody who had known them in New York ever discovered why they had moved to St. Louis, and when the young woman returned, bitter and humiliated, to her husband and two older children, she never told them, except for some vague references to “teaching jobs.” Her husband, perhaps understandably, treated the new child as if he were a demanding visitor who would soon miraculously disappear. As for his wife, he thought of her as a stupid maid whom he occasionally and quite gently, he thought, raped.


In the winter of that year, after his post-basic training leave, he took a train to San Antonio, to report for duty at Fort Sam Houston; he would be there for three months, at the Medical Field Service School, for advanced training. On the train, he discovered that the club car was painted a pale rose; its armchairs were a soft feathery blue. A girl came in and he and she began to talk. It was very late and they were alone in the car and quite comfortable together. The train drove through the darkness, and the promise of kisses lay in every dim corner.

After a time, the girl closed her eyes to the night rushing by outside the windows, the silent night in which black demons and black wolves ran silently through the black countryside. The train crashed on through the darkness.

He leaned toward her and kissed her cheek, then her ear, then put his lips in a light spidery touch on her neck, first at her hairline, then down to the collar of her dress. How sweet she smelled.

“It feels like a spider,” she said, “so soft and light. You’d better catch it.” He took a long time finding that spider; for the little monster roamed everywhere under her clothes, everywhere.

The next morning, at sunrise, the train pulled into Dallas and she got off. He waved to her from his coach window, but she pretended not to see him. The sky was turning rose and blue.


He died in a monstrous blooming rose of blood and fire outside of Munsan-ni, under a mortar attack. A week earlier, Chinese rounds had tracked a squad across a valley floor with relentless elegant, fussy precision, killing two and wounding two.

Before his orders had been cut for Ford Ord and FECOM, he was stationed for a brief time at Fort Meade, Maryland. A friend of his, in the Marines at Camp Lejeune, thought it might be a good idea if they met maybe in Baltimore for a weekend of disorderly drunkenness, etcetera. He said O.K., and they agreed to meet at a bar on Charles Street that they both knew. He got out to the highway on a post bus to hitch hike, in clean and starched Class-A khakis. What a soldier, standing tall!

After ten minutes, a powder-blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville rocketed to a halt just past him, and then backed up, whitewalls screaming, and he got in. The driver was going to Wilmington, and he’d take him right into fuckin’ Baltimore. He was a man of maybe fifty, sunburned and sweaty and absolutely drunk in that placid way that alcoholics know how to polish to perfection. On the seat, between his legs, was a quart of Gordon’s gin, from which he drank regularly. He’d occasionally light a Pall Mall, at which times he’d steer with one knee, smiling childishly. He maintained an average speed of about 85 to 90 miles an hour, looking at the road, or so it seemed, but now and again. At one point, the car hit a patch of gravelly sand and sailed through the summer air, quite beautifully, for some 20 yards, while the driver hooted with pleasure at, perhaps, the sight of death, grinning on the hood. But the Caddy landed gently and on they went, spared for something or other. We know why the soldier was spared, of course.

Incidentally, the driver offered the soldier a drink and a cigarette only after their unexpected flight: maybe he thought they were now true comrades.


In his old age, childless and thrice-divorced, with all of his old friends either dead, sick, or gone to sunbaked funereal places that were beyond his wish even to imagine them, Arthur began, one day, with no plan to speak of, to tote up, idly, to be sure, his grievances: the slights he’d endured, the insults, the petty humiliations unanswered and unavenged. He listed the unreciprocated kindnesses he’d shown others, the unanswered letters, the snubs, hurts, bad manners revealed, the advantage taken of him by those he had considered friends, or, at the least, not enemies. The project, if it may be given such a name, overwhelmed him, and he began to recover incidents, long forgotten, that he added, painstakingly and precisely, to his cruel catalogue. He felt as if driven before a wholly unexpected avalanche.

He bought a notebook, rather, an accounting ledger, and meticulously divided it into twenty-six sections, given over alphabetically to those people he had, for the most part, fished out of oblivion. Now he could enter, with great care, all that these people had, he knew, he remembered, done to him. After each name — sometimes, when he had forgotten the name that went with the now-despised face, he would simply describe the person in a mnemonic shorthand — he wrote a carefully constructed synopsis of the sneer, the slight, the shabby act or remark that he attached to the person so recalled. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Arthur pulled out of the pit lost years miseries long buried, and these would serve to illuminate others, many others, in their various darknesses. And, too, many of the wounds he felt once again were, to put it gently, imagined wounds. But they were added to his expanding lists.
His book, after a year or so, begot another, and then yet another, as his grievances grew and flowered, so that this accounting became his entire occupation. He was, if the word may be given a perverse reading, supremely content. A shabby euphoria, a Calvinist paradise.


The old man knew he was dying. The doctor had come after an episode of terrible agony that he’d endured that morning, and after the briefest of looks at his patient, who twitched and writhed and rocked in pain, he said that he wanted him admitted to the hospital immediately. But the stubborn old fool refused to go in an ambulance, and the doctor, who know his catalogue of neuroses and prejudices and insanities virtually by heart, said that he’d drive him in his car, which was parked right in front of the building. “I’ll not have the horse’s ass gawms staring at me in an ambulance, by Jesus,” the old man said. “Goddamned fools and creeping Jesus Lutherans, may God damn them to hell.”

He asked the doctor to go down and wait in his car, he’d be right down, he wanted to put on some clothes, he’d be goddamned if he’d leave the house in his pajamas like some shanty Irish greenhorn. The doctor told him not to be too long, then repeated this information accompanied by a pointing and admonishing index finger, and left.

The old man put on a starched white shirt, a dark-blue tie with a small light-blue paisley figure on its ground, an Oxford grey shadow-striped suit with vest, black shoes and black silk socks, and a grey Homburg. Then he left, with his daughter, who had been standing, during the doctor’s visit, in the kitchen, looking out at the neighboring roof. She didn’t want to have this sick father, she didn’t want to have this dead father, she didn’t want to have to be alive to put up with this. But here she was; with this mean, dying old man. She was afraid and relieved that he’d probably not recover this time.

On the landing between the ground and second floor, the old man stopped, stood straight for a moment, then bent over and vomited black, grainy blood, once and then again. He wiped his mouth with his handkerchief, then inspected his shoes and trouser cuffs for stains. “You’d better clean this mess up, Skeezix,” he said, “the Scowegian will have a fit and you’ll never hear the end of it.” She went back up the stairs. “I’ll be at the hospital as soon as I get dressed,” she said, and he waved her away and, panting with the pain in his innards, continued down, cold sweat making his face shine resplendently with doom.

When she’d cleaned up the vomit, she went upstairs again, dressed, left the building, walked to the nearby hack stand, and was at the hospital in twenty minutes, to discover that he’d died in the doctor’s car. Later, back in the apartment, walking about in her slip, a private luxury that she suddenly became happily aware of, she found his watch and chain, his sterling silver pocket knife, and his wallet, with some four hundred dollars in it, on the dresser in his bedroom. She could hear his voice clear in her mind: “The hospital is nothing but a den of thieves. Worse than the goddamn firemen.” She sat down on the bed and lit one of his Lucky Strikes. “Bye-bye, Poppa,” she said.


He’d finally got a job checking freight for the King Assembly Agency, working on a North River platform of the Pennsylvania Railroad, with whose checkers and car loaders the assembly agency worked in tandem.

The weather had grown increasingly colder as January progressed, and one morning, as he walked into the violent wind blowing up 40th Street from the river, he knew that this day, the first truly cold day on his new job, would be astonishingly cruel. And so it was.

His marriage had been steadily disintegrating, even though it was barely more than a year old. His wife looked at him, or so he thought, with a passive, almost friendly, benign contempt, although he had no idea why: perhaps he was wrong. He certainly could not have furnished any “proof” or examples of this contempt, but it was there, he knew. It was there. He believed that one day soon he’d be given a sign of some sort to prove, to his satisfaction, that his wife happily despised him, and always had, that their marriage was teetering on the edge of collapse; and that she was ready to take advantage of any catalyst to give it a careless push.

Al, the foreman, took a look at him in his absurdly inadequate clothing, and gave him a woollen watch cap to pull over his ears, his ears and his stupid head, the head of what Al had, on his first day, called, dismissively, a “college boy.” The cap kept his head from freezing, but did nothing for his body or his feet, numbed into two chunks of icy flesh from the frigid concrete floor of the platform. This was his true initiation into the world of brutally hard work, “honest,” as they say, work.

The sign would arrive and he would see it or feel it deeply; there would be no doubt of it. Then, only then, armed with this certainty, he could confront his wife and ask her to tell him the truth. The truth. Perhaps, he occasionally thought, she wasn’t aware of how she treated him, how she talked to him with equal measures of impatience and patronization, wasn’t aware of how she was to him. His candor would awaken her own, and perhaps something would be made clear between them, and “things” might then be brought cleanly to a conclusion, before both of them were drained of their youth and what was left of their honesty. It never occurred to him that if his wife consciously acted toward him in the manner he thought — he knew — she did, that she might like it, that she might like doing this to him, that she had married him so that he would always be near, waiting patiently to be insulted and demeaned.

On the following day, he would wear long underwear, put a few sheets of newspaper between two sweaters, and don a scarf, the cap that Al had given him, heavy gloves, and two pairs of socks under his old low quarters. He would be a worker instead of a chump, sad in his chump’s ignorance.
On the evening of that first bleak and bitter day, when he took himself home, a kind of core of terrible ice sat solid inside his body; all the way home on the subway, the bus, the three-block walk to the small apartment that he and his wife were slowly fading away in, he shook with the cold. A glass of straight bourbon couldn’t get him warm, nor could the spaghetti, of which he had seconds and then thirds. It did nothing. He trembled and shook at the table and while he watched television and, undressing for bed, shook even more fiercely as the cool air of the bedroom touched his bare flesh. And then he realized that this was the sign, this frozen center of his body, his pitiful, stupid body was her body, too: they were both dead or dying. His wife asked him, for the first time, what the matter was. She smiled as if vaguely annoyed by the intolerable ague that possessed him. Are you sick? she asked. Oh yes, he was indeed.


Deny it to himself as he would, his work had begun to bore him. Well, he had been at it for fifty years, a little more, really, than fifty years, if he counted apprentice work; he had a shelf of books to attest to those wearying yet absorbing labors, to those thousands of hours, millions of words, and, he was chagrined to recognize, the slow but absolute fading away of what had at one time been a small but definite critical attention to his books. Fifty years. It was indeed wondrous, so he often thought, that he had managed to live at all, to walk and talk and eat and laugh, to love women, to father children — how had that happened?
Perhaps most unsettling — beyond the nagging sense that he had lived but in his spare time — his books, whenever he took one down at random, out of curiosity or to refresh his memory as to how he had managed a specific formal problem, invariably shocked him in that nothing in any of them seemed in the least familiar, but looked as if — read as if — written by a stranger who had secretly invaded his mind and absorbed large quantities of his memories. Worse still, every book — and there they were, with their familiar titles, with his name on jacket and case — every book seemed too good for his talents, such as they were, such as he considered them to be. Who had written this paragraph? these pages? these chapters? — some of which struck him as so artistically authoritative, so perfect, so sublime, that he felt as if he had plagiarized, word for word, the work of another, much better, writer.
And so his current work, beyond its somewhat mischievous, even malign capacity to fill him with an ennui so profound as to exhaust him, appeared to him to cast a shadow on his earlier work, to demean it, sully it, in a sense to sabotage it. With every sentence he wrote, it seemed, an earlier sentence, a glittering and suave sentence, decayed a little. But this was all he knew how to do. He wasn’t much good for anything else, and what he did know how to do — even when, he smiled ruefully — even when he knew how to do it, proved nothing, changed nothing, and spoke to about as many people as one could fit into a small movie theater.
And so he continued to do it, correcting and revising each newly made page with a feeling of weird neutrality, with a feeling that he was simply passing the time: this or solitaire — all right, this. Surely, the other old writers he still knew felt precisely this way. Did they? He surely wouldn’t ask such an impertinent question.
He had recently received a letter from a dear friend, who, it so turned out, died soon after. He took the letter from his files one morning, before he started what he now thought of as “work,” scare quotes flaring, and found in it what he was sure he had read. The friend had confessed to him that his last book was, indeed, his last book, that he had given up or lost — it made little difference — the ability and the desire to write another word. His friend lamented the fix that he was in, but his frustration seemed forced, it seemed a position taken because of proprieties, the old truisms about art: a writer who cannot write, how sad, how tragic. It was a role his friend was playing. So it seemed, so it was.
He sat at his desk, and read the letter again. He wished, oh how he wished it wasn’t so, but he was choked with envy of his friend’s sterility: not to be able to write, not to want to write, to be, as they say, “written out,” or, more wonderfully, “burnt out” — lovely phrase! But it was a gift that had not been given him, and, he knew, despairing, that it would never be given him. He was doomed, damned, if you will, to write on, and on and on, blundering through the shadows of this pervasive twilight, until finally, perhaps, he would get said what could never be said.


...his wife dead for many years... His wife’s name was Constance (Connie), and his children’s Rose, Marie, Grace, and Alexander (Alec).

...loves a girl, who, as it turns out... The reader may be reminded of the last lines of Swann’s Way: “to think that I’ve waited years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, but I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” It should be noted, however, that Proust tells us that Swann said this to himself in a period of his “intermittent caddishness.”
...anything you can dream up... You might wish to note on the fly leaves of this book some of the things you can dream up, if you wish; the reader is the ruler.
...relentlessly unveils its gods... It is, of course, distressingly clear that many societies believe that their gods have not been invented and have permitted themselves to be revealed. There were also many extinct societies that believed in revealed gods. The latter are also extinct, despite the occasional romantic attempt to pretend otherwise. mysterious ways... “God works in mysterious ways” is one of the supreme bromides of our age, and this is the age of bromides, many of them disguised as hardheaded “observations” on “life.”

...a sun-faded lime-green monster... The term “lime-green” does not truly describe the color of this vehicle, which was of one never seen or even approximated in nature.
...He took $147.34... In 1960, this was a considerable sum. A yearly income of $5000-$6000 was enough to live on quite comfortably.

[NB: this is a recasting, in prose, of “Révé pour l’Hiver,” by Arthur Rimbaud, which the poet dated 29 September 1870. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to attempt a translation — a transliteration — of poetry into prose, yet this does have some of the flavor of Rimbaud’s original; it lacks, of course, his brilliant casualness, his arrogant and elegant linguistic slouch.] the Medical Field Service School... The school was attached to the Brook Army Medical Center.

...under a mortar attack... The Chinese expertise with mortars was well-known among American troops during the Korean War.
...FECOM... An acronym for Far East Command.

...sunbaked funereal places... e.g., Phoenix, AZ; St. Augustine, FL. accounting ledger... Purchased at his local stationery store, Laverty & Son, on 8th Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets in New York. The store no longer exists.

...admitted to the hospital immediately... The hospital was the Caledonia, located on Prospect Park South. It is now called the Caledonian Campus of the Brooklyn Hospital Center. The nurse’s aides wore plaid jumpers.
...he’d drive him in his car... The car was a 1951 Olds.
...lit one of his Lucky Strikes... By now, of course, in their wartime white package, the switch from OD being a great advertising coup — profit and patriotism.

...King Assembly Agency... An assembly agency consolidates freight and packs it into freight cars for countrywide destinations. In New York, the working platforms for such labor were in the West 40’s near the slaughterhouses.
...this frozen center of his body... This figure may be considered a metaphor, a metonymy, a synecdoche, or a blunt symbol.

...written by a stranger... His best books were: Farsighted, Ghost Talk, Azure Piano, and A Small Hotel. He couldn’t bear to reread any of them.
...he wasn’t much good for anything else... Despite what seemed to be rueful protestations, he didn’t want to be good at anything else.
...doomed, damned, if you will, to write on... This is, admittedly, a melodramatic phrase.

Copyright © 2006 the Estate of Gilbert Sorrentino