RED THE FIEND by Gilbert Sorrentino


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 The author of Under the Shadow (1991) leaves no pathology or dysfunction unaddressed in his lurid tale of the making of an adolescent hood. Setting the action in a working-class section of New York City during the Depression, Sorrentino, determined to make his point that it's all in the nurture, lays blame in spades on young Red the Fiend's Irish-Catholic family. Certainly all of them, except maybe Grandpa, are either monstrously nasty or monstrously weak. Red and his mother have to live with her parents because Red's father drank too much, lost his job, and went off with other women. Grandma is a horror, and though Sorrentino tries half-heartedly to offer some crumbs of explanation--her parents were religious fanatics; obsessed by sin, she regularly indulged in self-flagellation--it is not enough to explain her behavior. Grandma ``likes to wear rags,'' disdains underwear, and sits provocatively in front of Red or his visiting father; fears cats and priests (``they have an inhuman smell that suggests strange doings''); viciously berates her daughter for her inadequacies; and regularly devises cruel punishments for young Red. As a small boy he is made to fetch objects from the cellar, a place she knows terrifies him; he must beat to death the mice caught in her traps; and he has to eat the stale and nauseating food she deliberately prepares for him. Red soon becomes an illiterate, brutalized adolescent who sexually assaults a neighborhood girl, steals money, and by the end is manifesting some of Grandma's bizarre pathologies. Through it all, Red's spineless mother is too cowed and passive to defend her son in any significant way. A nasty, brutish, and almost certainly short life lies ahead for poor Red and anyone else he meets up with, but we're not interested. Sorrentino's fiend and his family are mere caricatures, not flesh and blood.

Pub Date: Jan. 9th, 1995
ISBN: 0-88064-163-0
Page count: 224pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1994


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