Fails to impress

Fails to impress

Fails to impress

The Fugitives
Simon & Schuster
2016, pp 336, Rs 1,764

In his new novel, The Fugitives, Christopher Sorrentino grafts a halfhearted, Elmore Leonard-style casino heist plot onto what is fundamentally the mournful story of one man’s failures as a writer, a husband and a father. The result is something close to a disaster.

The elements don’t mesh, and what we’re left with is what’s called, in the video game world, at least, a mutual kill: Each side is fatally damaged.

The funny thing about The Fugitives, however, is that you’d never mistake it for the work of an untalented writer. Sorrentino has serious gifts, and his observations about sex, envy, writer’s block, marriage and what’s left of New York City’s literary world hint at the formidable novel this might have been. There’s a lot of gleaming machinery here that is never assembled — machinery a lesser writer wouldn’t have around in the first place.

The Fugitives is the story of Alexander Mulligan III, known as Sandy, a successful Brooklyn writer who escapes to small-town Michigan to try to finish a stalled novel. He is also escaping a domestic scandal involving an affair, a divorce, a pregnancy and a suicide.
The sexual outlaw is now a sexual outcast. “You’d think after Burroughs had put a bullet through his wife’s head, after Mailer had stabbed his,” the demented comedian in Sandy comments, “I’d catch a break.” Instead, a “persecuting spirit” all but hounds him out of Brooklyn.

Once in Michigan, he finds a house and sets up a literary war room. His novel is long overdue, so he lays in enough Office Depot goodies, of a luxury sort, to knock the thing out in a few months. Here we find him midappraisal: “I also had an Aeron chair, a laptop with separate cordless keyboard and mouse, an external hard drive, a printer, a scanner/fax/copier, a smartphone, an iPod and a stereo dock, a modem, a high-speed Internet connection, and a wireless router to connect it all; everything the reclusive author needed except a briar pipe and a walking stick.”

What he lacks is his muse. His novel is not merely stalled; privately, he’s given it up for dead. He fritters away his days, watching pornography, listening to playlists of thrillingly sad music and ingesting beers before lunch. His publisher is threatening to demand that he return his advance; he’s living on a grant that may be cut off.

Sorrentino is the author of five previous books, notably Trance (2005), a winding and Don DeLillo-ish novel that was a remixing of the events surrounding Patty Hearst’s kidnapping. That book was a finalist for the National Book Award but didn’t attract the audience it deserved. Trance had the misfortune of appearing in the wake of Susan Choi’s sublime 2003 novel, American Woman, also loosely about the Hearst case, which caught a larger ride in the culture.

Sorrentino’s new novel is, you can’t help noticing, at least vaguely autobiographical. Like Sandy, he was involved in a painful divorce, so painful that a book — Benjamin Anastas’s memoir, Too Good to Be True (2012) — has been written by another party in the sorry mess. Sandy’s father, a college professor, somewhat resembles the author’s own, novelist Gilbert Sorrentino. Sandy’s novel is overdue; this is Sorrentino’s first major book in more than a decade.

We’ve met men like Sandy a hundred times. The lightly grizzled midcareer novelist as a lout, fumbling toward grace, is among the oldest stories. But if it’s a tired story, so is boy meets girl and “road trip.” These narrative forms are elastic sacks into which fine spirits can still be poured.

Sorrentino pours some very fine spirits indeed. For example, Sandy would despise my paragraph, just above, in which I suggest some similarities between the author and the hero. “A novel should be like the calling card of an unknown killer,” he writes — deadly and anonymous.

The author has intuitive things to say about the online world. Facebook is regarded by Sandy as that “nice smooth interface between you and all the bad habits and ancient disharmonies.” He sends up the sort of book parties held in art galleries with “high-res photos of vulvas on the walls.”

Yet Sandy’s story is not allowed to accrue layers of meaning and wit. Before long, he meets Kat, a plucky young reporter from a Chicago newspaper. She’s on the trail of a lowlife, nicknamed Jackie Crackers, who may or may not have stolen already skimmed money from an Indian casino.

Jackie Crackers also may or may not have reinvented himself as a Native American storyteller who appears at local fairs and libraries. Trust me when I say: You will not care about Jackie Crackers.

Kat and Sandy meet cute, have blazing sex and get into ridiculous scrapes involving tough guys and handguns and shallow graves out in the woods.

The dialogue follows them right off the deep end. Over sandwiches and milkshakes, Sandy begins to make pronouncements like: “It turned out Rilke was right, that fame is no more than the quintessence of all the misunderstandings collecting around a new name.” Gore Vidal had no patience with anyone who, like Sandy, complained of writer’s block. About such men and women, he said: “You’re not meant to be doing this. Plenty more where you came from.”

But Sorrentino is clearly meant to be doing this — writing novels, that is. Even if, in The Fugitives, he’s spinning his outsize wheels.
Dwight Garner