An Introduction to Novelist Gilbert Sorrentino’s Bay Ridge

Gilbert Sorrentino books about Bay Ridge and elsewhere
On April 27, 2015—what would have been Gilbert Sorrentino’s 86th birthday, had he not died in 2006—several novelists, including Don DeLillo, Sam Lipsyte, Mark Chiusano and Gilbert’s son, Christopher Sorrentino, gathered at Tuohy Hall, part of St. Joseph’s College, in Clinton Hill, to pay tribute to the poet, novelist and Bay Ridge native by reading excerpts from his works. I was invited by organizer and editor Gerald Howard to begin by telling those in the audience a little bit about the neighborhood, helping put Gilbert Sorrentino’s work into context. These are those remarks. 

Bay Ridge is a neighborhood in the southwestern corner of Brooklyn.

Unless you’re from Bay Ridge, or maybe the next neighborhood over, you probably don’t know much about it, or even that it exists; it’s avoided the coolification that has overtaken so much of the rest of the borough in the last twenty or thirty years, because it’s far enough from Manhattan to have avoided gentrification and retain its unique character, even while it’s undergone some dramatic demographic changes. Historically, it has the distinction of being founded by artists, a cohort of 50 engravers and lithographers and stained-glass masters who settled in what was then the pastoral, rural outskirts of the City of Brooklyn. But that has little to do with Gilbert Sorrentino’s Bay Ridge.

By the time Gil was born, in 1929, Bay Ridge wasn’t the countryside. The Fourth Avenue subway had been extended as far as 86th Street just 15 years before, which had put the neighborhood within commuting distance of Manhattan, if just barely; and it experienced its greatest building boom earlier that decade, when the last of the large parcels of land were sold off to developers, who built thousands of new buildings, an entire small city, all within a few years, tearing down ramshackle wooden fences, homesteads and Gilded Age mansions and slapping up apartment complexes and other middle-class housing.

Anyone who’s read Steelwork or Crystal Vision or Red the Fiend or Little Casino or A Strange Commonplace or The Abyss of Human Illusion knows Gil’s Bay Ridge was no artists’ colony. The streets in his Brooklyn books are home to an insular neighborhood-culture of poolrooms, taverns and candystores, populated by the unhappily married and the miserably unattached, vets and laborers and middle managers, all addicted to alcohol, all sexually frustrated—or, rather, sexually frenzied—people whom Sorrentino succinctly describes in A Strange Commonplace as “tough, flexible and distrustful of crude irony.”

This is how the neighborhood has existed for almost the last 100 years: a little piece of Staten Island in Brooklyn, unpretentious, old-fashioned, and middle-class, even though it’s also home to many multimillion-dollar mansions, a short walk from Sorrentino’s corner of the neighborhood though seemingly a city away. The residents of these kinds of places sometimes show up in Sorrentino’s stories, too, having the kind of mid 20th-century affairs common to the materially comfortable and spiritually fidgety. But mostly it’s the same milieu you still find as late as Saturday Night Fever, the best-known piece of media set in Bay Ridge, a portrait of how difficult it is to be from the neighborhood, of its streets, and make something meaningful or beautiful, even if it’s as lowbrow as disco dancing.

That said, the neighborhood has accidentally produced or housed a couple of artists over the years: C. W. Coolidge, who painted the famous canvases of dogs playing poker, raised his family there for 20 years before decamping for Staten Island. And Emmett Grogan, founder of the Diggers and author of the quasi-memoir cult classic Ringolevio, at least used to visit his parents here grew up here, though he would never admit it. And Sorrentino’s childhood friend and adult colleague, Hubert Selby, Jr., grew up nearby and went to the same elementary school, and set his first and most famous book, Last Exit to Brooklyn, in the neighborhood—on its northernmost fringes—as well as many of his short stories. (Seriously: if you like books and Bay Ridge—and you’re not prudish—buy a copy of Song of the Silent Snow.)

But Selby’s and Sorrentino’s Bay Ridge has as little to do with the neighborhood today as 19th-century Bay Ridge had to do with theirs. New immigrants from the Middle East have overtaken the old arrivals from Ireland, Italy and Scandinavia who once populated the row houses, apartment buildings and detached homes. The Alpine-adjacent building that housed Henry’s, a bar that shows up frequently in Steelwork and other Sorrentino books, is now the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, a combination mosque and community center. Elsewhere, as in the rest of New York, a bunch of the old bars and mom-and-pop stores and family-owned restaurants shut down and were replaced by corporate chains and international banks.

But such changes are also, you know, kinda superficial. Sure, maybe the number of bars has been cut in half, but there are still a hell of a lot! And maybe the mosque has more influence in certain corners than the old Catholic parishes used to, but so what? The kids running down Fifth Avenue today still look a lot like me and my friends did, as we reminded our parents of themselves, and their parents of themselves. “Bay Ridge,” Selby told an interviewer in the 90s, “is the same for the last 80 years.”

Sorrentino describes the neighborhood as it was for him, for my grandparents. His books and the memories contained therein are three generations old. But by capturing how it was he still gives us insight into how it is, how its attitudes have remained while its face has changed. I think he shows everyone from Bay Ridge—or any overlooked community, in Brooklyn or New York or anywhere else—that there are stories in their hometowns worth telling. Maybe most of all, he tells the people who grow up there—reading books, listening to jazz, feeling just a little bit different—that they were never really alone.

For more information about Sorrentino, read a piece I wrote for Electric Literature last summer, or order a copy of Steelwork. You could also support your local bookstore and ask the Bookmark Shoppe to order a copy for you.

On May 10, fans will lead a walking tour through the neighborhood of relevant sites from Sorrentino’s life. It kicks off at noon from the corner of Bay Ridge Avenue and Fourth Avenue. It’s free, but you must RSVP: . (This is a temporary email address being used just for this event, in case you’re wondering why it looks weird.)