This review is about 3 printed pages long.
Relentlessly excellent writing combined with a detailed, violent story creates a terrifying situation in this book. It gripped my attention and I received shock after shock from the graphic yet subtle descriptions of a boy’s torment at the hands of his family, and his many transformations. Just when I started to think I could take no more of another crazed episode, the story would change tone or move to a different setting or perspective. Some lines are pointed and others blunt, and now and then they swerve or create clouds and storms. Sorrentino’s phrases and passages suit their purpose in the way that cutlery is shaped for particular tasks. The world shown is not appetising, but in the same way that we sometimes feel drawn to scenes of devastation, this intensely portrayed reality also has a fascination about it.
Although this tale takes place in a limited world, mainly some rooms of a house and nearby places outdoors, or the child’s school and a few local places of business, there is a sense of completeness, of a whole world being shown. This is not the only place, but it seems closed in some way and extremely active.
Life during the Great Depression held a great deal of violence, some of it the unavoidable result of poverty. This family is not poor: they appear mainly well off, except for their emotional and psychological states, but the matriarch penny-pinches for other reasons. Sorrentino reveals how someone with perverse intent may twist any scenario or circumstance to suit their own deviations.
People did hit their children routinely. Not that long ago schools used corporal punishment every day. Also, complete strangers could smack a child on the hand to admonish them, in my younger years, and few parents complained about it. Violence of this kind against children appeared necessary and normal in the early twentieth century, and some people still practise it now. Decades ago many people took out their frustrations on those smaller and weaker than they, privately thinking or deluding themselves that the beatings did some kind of good.
The cruelties in Red the Fiend are tucked away, covered up, and hidden with a contract of silence for the most part. The grandmother goes to the extreme of not permitting anyone uninvited to even have the door opened to their knock. She is so determined to control her diminished world.
The characters all use language in peculiar ways. Hints of mental illness appear throughout this onslaught of a narrative: the grandmother and the boy see things in strange lights, and the boy’s grandfather retreats into an eerie quiet relieved only by platitudes, cigarettes and whisky. Red’s father long ago succumbed to alcoholic stupidity and his mother seems cowed, then inexplicably lively, like someone with bouts of manic-depression. The grandmother attacked a nun because the woman had a halo of red about her, and obviously manifested the devil. No one seeks help for their disturbed mindsets, except in pleasures which usually only satisfy one person, the instigator. A sense of unease pervades everything Red does, dreams or says.
Where this writer excels is in showing characters through their actions, their thoughts and what they wear and what they desire. Dream sequences and odd imaginings also play a part, and vivid talk illuminates this horror show brightly. Common sense is always on the run, as if logic has no place in their talk.
Grandma says that she’s fed up with finger smudges on the glasses and dishes and Mother couldn’t even hold the good job she had in the bank when she was single, she doesn’t appreciate the roof she has over her head. Red, well, Red is thoroughly disobedient, a devil of a boy, Mother can’t hold a job even now, does she remember the spectacle of herself she made as a waitress?
Grandma ducks and dives from subject to subject in an orgy of emotion. Sorrentino’s creation of voice and stance for each character is impeccable, then you start to clearly see what the family has in common.
For a while it seems as if there are enough people to offer many options, even for Red to find solace at least and perhaps an ally. Later, hope takes the form of Red’s increasing independence and wiliness, his ability to act in ways he thinks could fool his perpetual tormentor, Grandma.
Occasional tough humour enlivens this text, as when Red wishes he didn’t have to talk with his father, he’d rather be dead in the Foreign Legion. The chapter about his written stories at school is also amusing in a poignant, awful way. His misspelt drama and the teacher’s lukewarm, repetitive comments evoke earnestness, and yet a shallow understanding of what fiction may be hiding or revealing.
I do not want to explain too much, however I should make it clear that some people could find Red the Fiend simply too gruesome and brutal. I keep being in two minds about this book. Is it just violent pornography, or is it designed to have a cathartic function?
Despite my intermittent revulsion, I believe Sorrentino keeps the words on a tightrope for the main show, with some heart-wrenching and stomach-turning moments. This passage is only a mild example of where his fiction may go at any moment.
What kind of spectacle would it be to let a kike see a woman as refined as Grandma, a woman who has always held her head high and not been ashamed to look anyone in the eye in spite of her useless daughter, to let him see her killing lice like some bog-trotter slut such as Red’s father’s common-law tramp? What kind of a spectacle? She deftly pokes Red in the eye and it begins to water. Grandma says that he damn well ought to cry, bringing shame on his family with the filth of him!
Grandma’s rants sometimes go on for pages without a paragraph break, since she rarely follows any clear logic. This main character is rage and self-loathing incarnate.
But everyone has secrets, and there are also moments when they seem to be someone else entirely. Confusion becomes the norm, and adds to the acceptance of Red’s world as a true one.
Red also changes and develops throughout the book as young people do. He is a real boy, even as the worst occurs, and so the the reader feels pity. His story takes us through his development, his brave attempts at independence and his attempts to outwit his enemies, then through his first love and much more, including coming to terms with what his family means to his life.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted or squeamish. It is a moral tale, despite the lack of morals displayed by everyone in this story. The narrative will stay with me a long time.