NOW BEACON, NOW SEA
Memory of a son
By Christophe Sorrentino
While reading Christopher Sorrentino’s Now Beacon, Now Sea, I heard Rodrigo Garcia, son of Gabriel García Marquez, talk on the radio about his new memoir, “A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes”. Garcia’s book is a love chronicle of the last days of her larger-than-life father and faithful mother. Sorrentino’s book is also about his novelist father and the death of his parents. Both have the subtitle “A Son’s Memoir”. But “Now Beacon, Now Sea” is not a tender tribute. As I listened to Garcia speak, I realized that Sorrentino was working in a decidedly different genre: his “son memories” are more of an autopsy than a eulogy.
Sorrentino’s father, Gilbert, was a more prolific than famous avant-garde, who died in an under-equipped Brooklyn hospital while his son was on his way; his wife, Vicki, who is the true subject of this book and a truly fascinating book, has died under even darker circumstances. His decaying body, discovered by his son in his Bay Ridge apartment, is the book’s striking opening image. An autopsy was never ordered.
Sharp, intimate, and extremely fair, Sorrentino’s memoirs are an autopsy that examines not the causes of his parents’ death, but the endurance and effects of their confused marriage. Why did two people so badly matched willingly stay together for more than half a century? How much did it cost each of them? How much did it cost their son?
Sorrentino begins with the family stories inherited from Vicki, a Puerto Rican transplant daughter whose birth certificate classifies her as Black but whose history of racial transmission is as complicated as any other aspect of her identity. She seems determined not to be Puerto Rican, but she vigorously disapproves of white New York’s assignments: her son thinks “she wasn’t looking for a bourgeois foothold in life, but an enlightened one.”
Vicki is a product of the Lower East Side Kill Or Kill, and the scenes that take place there in the early days of the family in the 1960s, before she moved to a fragile and elitist art commune in Greenwich Village, are fierce and lively. Sorrentino writes that there was “a certain ni / ni-ness in my mother’s attitude to the world”. She develops, almost proudly, her own collection of contradictions.
As the elder Sorrentino earns her son’s devotion – and perhaps unfairly escapes some of the parental chaos – through an infuriating routine, Vicki appears consumed by her own discontent. Despite his best efforts to build what we now call “boundaries,” Sorrentino struggles to be accepted by his mother, a lifelong effort that often results in disappointment.
It all probably sounds very depressing. But more than resentment or self-pity or even grief, what drives this memoir is the very human curiosity for the psychology of his parents and therefore the prerequisites for his own life. Therapist diagnoses Gilbert and Vicki as “co-addicts”; readers may use other terms for family members – “narcissist”, “bully”, “abuser”, “facilitator”, “victim”. But Sorrentino is wary of relying on the language of trauma, however useful, to prescribe familiar roles to his parents, or for that matter, to himself. He’s more interested in describing what it feels like to exist in a dysfunctional, sometimes distant, always paradoxical – unhappy in its own way – family from the inside out, and each description seems truer than the last, closer to the center of the family. shared nervous system: “I didn’t think about what made her happy or unhappy; I only felt that my own dissatisfaction with the situation was the price I had to pay for escaping being locked into the narrowest definition of what it was to be myself.
Sorrentino himself is the author of four novels, including the National Book Award finalist “Trance”. “Now Beacon, Now Sea”, his early memoir, is perhaps simpler than his vocal and plot novels, and he only occasionally indulges in romantic and cinematic flourishes – cascading lists, lyrical still lifes. The most deeply felt risks of the book are in the open vulnerability of a line, a stripping of style.
It’s the story of a son who tries to dissect and understand the love that remains – and sometimes emerges – after death. We may have a greater cultural appetite for eulogies, but an autopsy, looking directly at the cold corpse of a family in all its horror and mystery, can be just as profound, and in the hands of a a writer as sober and human as Sorrentino, just as handsome.