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Slicing Tomatoes and Other Close Encounters

LITTLE CASINO , A Novel, By Gilbert Sorrentino, Coffee House Press: 214 pp., $14.95 paper

July 28, 2002|CARMELA CIURARU | Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of "Beat Poets" and the forthcoming "Poems for America."

Gilbert Sorrentino's latest novel, "Little Casino," is a series of imaginative encounters, dialogues and meditations whose concerns range from sandwich toppings to mortality. In more than 40 brief, evocatively titled chapters ("The very picture of loneliness," "Lest it be forgotten," "Mechanics of the dream world"), Sorrentino muses on the absurd and the profound with dark humor.

The novel's loosely connected episodes (which occur mostly in early- to mid-20th century Brooklyn) are followed by author commentaries, in which Sorrentino critiques what he has just written ("reprehensible"); attempts to "work with" the reader to fill in the blanks ("dear reader, you may add your own remarks or amorous aquatic memories in, perhaps, the margins"); or simply offers an odd non sequitur: "George's father filled the huge jar with, let's say, Greek olives."

Sorrentino has a brilliant imagination and hilarious philosophical musings. Although steeped in irony, the novel conveys well the inept romantic encounters of adolescence, as Sorrentino's various characters fumble through lust and love. One unnamed boy watches two teenage girls sitting nearby on the beach: "They have small breasts," Sorrentino writes, "which he looks at surreptitiously as often as he can, the little degenerate."

Sorrentino is both clever and delightful. In one section, the author contemplates the word "chum," which he writes is "no longer in general use, save for ironic or parodic effect. It functions, that is, much like the well-made short story." He adds: "Of which we've read, ah, plenty."

The author concedes that he has "apparently dumped the contents of some notebook scribblings onto the page and is hoping to pass it off as 'innovative' literature." Elsewhere he introduces a section by announcing that "the scene is so banal as to make one weep in desperation, and yet, what an overwhelming sense of life!"

Through recipes, proofs, theories, jokes and epistolary exchanges, Sorrentino meditates on, among other things, family, religion, sex and childhood. If his language is absurd, his ideas are certainly not. The author states his contention that people are, "for the most part, utterly absurd," and he reveals human folly throughout. (One section concerns, in its entirety, a married couple's petty, heated argument over slicing tomatoes.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, this experimental novel might have been a pretentious mess. But in "Little Casino," Sorrentino--an unsung hero in contemporary literature--displays his intelligence, exuberance and wisdom, making his novel both entertaining and incisive.

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