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Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino

Saturday, July 12, 2014 § 0

Gold Fools: An Innovative Western Written Entirely in the Inter(rog)ative Tense

A Book Review by 
David Detrich

Gold Fools (2001) by Gilbert Sorrentino was published by Green Integer Press, Los Angeles and Copenhagen, in a small paperback format with 368 pages. Although small in size this is a monumental innovative novel that is written entirely in the interrogative tense that represents a narrator who is asking relevant questions which become the narration of a modern western novel. The ranchers Bud Merkel, Nort, and Dick Shannon meet prospector Hank Crosby who questions the ethics of the ranching operation. Gold Fools is written in the genre of an innovative western, along with Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969) by Ishmael Reed, two novels by California writers who represent the verbal wit of the American cowboy as a subject for the innovative novel.

Gold Fools begins with a quote from Tristan Tzara which expresses the transcendent perspective on reality where the narrator is superior to the events which occur. This is also a universal perspective where things remain constant in the larger scheme of the meta-plot, where the plot remains the same.

Everything happens in very idiotic fashion. That's why everything is the same.
                                                             Tristan Tzara

Gold Fools begins with a short summary of the plot in which a failed venture in ranching finds the men sitting before a campfire, and soon the reader discovers that the novel itself exists as an extended plot summary enhanced by a series of investigative questions which create a polyvalent perspective by approaching the subject from a multiplicity of angles, a technique used by the Cubists and Italian Futurists.

Were Nort Shannon, Dick Shannon, and Bud Merkel exceptionally morose as they sat before the small bunkhouse and about the flames of the blazing campfire? Was their recent failed venture in ranching all over, and did Bud, in particular, think it time to pack it in?
                                                             Gold Fools
                                                             Gilbert Sorrentino

With the introduction of the gold prospector, Hank Crosby, the minimal plot is revealed in a series of questions that suggest their western ranching efforts were possibly unethical or illegal? The narrator considers the moralistic questions of the western lifestyle from an informed perspective.

Did Hank Crosby almost immediately tell the boys that he was a prospector for desert gold? Why, according to western belief, is such a prospector absolutely the worst kind? Why did the boys tell Hank that their days as cattle ranchers were, well, a bust? 
                                                            Gold Fools
                                                            Gilbert Sorrentino

In the context of the western novel Hank Crosby acts as a guiding spirit for the young men who consider the question of morality that is posed here once again. It seems that even in the old west the boys were contending with a rugged frontier approach that verged on outlaw strategies for financial success. Who could resolve this moral dilemma while bringing America back to the enlightened spirituality that would make it a leading nation?

Why were there so many cruel remarks floating about on the frontier, and so few kind ones? An abundance of pizen whiskey and loose women? Did Hank, just for an instant, consider making the laughingly contemptuous boys eat lead?
                                                            Gold Fools
                                                            Gilbert Sorrentino 

The rivalry between two political parties may divide the country into too noticeable a negative vote creating an unnecessary divergence of opinion, so that it seems America should be unified to solve the dilemma with a larger affirmative majority. 

Was this a likely story? What was, given the era, another likely story? Has the ancient art of storytelling been lost? How ancient is ancient? Do the Irish tell wonderful stories? What are broths of lads?
                                                            Gold Fools
                                                            Gilbert Sorrentino

A likely story could occur in Northern California where the art of storytelling is inspired by the rock canyons which suggest ancient art from a time in the Late Cretaceous when the coast of California was considerably inland from where it is today. The lads would be inspired by a broth that brings a sense of romance to the old west where the desert scene becomes a mountain range that is not far from the border of Nevada.

Did the fellows echo, in slightly deranged unison, "DESERT GOLD FEVER?" before falling all about in delighted confusion? What did Yellin' Watson do while this minor bacchanal was in progress? Can desert-gold fever lie quiet in the blood for years, and then suddenly break out, like impetigo?
                                                            Gold Fools
                                                            Gilbert Sorrentino

This passage is the first climax of the novel when the boys get Desert Gold Fever, and while feeling optimism at the prospect of financial success, the narrator considers a sub-plot of dormant health conditions which may effect the realization of their dreams. 

Gold Fools (2001) by Gilbert Sorrentino, a novelist and poet who taught at Stanford University, was published towards the end of his literary career after writing many well known innovative novels, including Splendide-Hôtel (1973) and Mulligan Stew (1979). Most readers may recall the large deluxe paperback edition of Mulligan Stew by Grove Press, where Gilbert Sorrentino had worked as an editor, a novel which is a parody of the literary establishment featuring rejection letters and a humorous characterization of the innovative novelist's effort to succeed in American literature. 

My sense of the formal is that of a structure or series of structures that can, if one is lucky enough, generate "content," or, if you please, the wholeness of the work itself. Almost all of my books are written under the influence of some sort of preconceived constraint or set of rules. Some of these are loose and flexible, like the time scheme in Steelwork, and others are quite rigorous, like the alphabetical framework in Misterioso.
                                                         The Write Stuff
                                                         Gilbert Sorrentino 
                                                         Interview
                                                        Alexander Laurence

Gilbert Sorrentino was influenced by the theories of Oulipo which used a set of arbitrary constraints to write a novel, and the idea of generating content may have come from the linguistic theory of generative grammar where one linguistic structure will suggest the keywords which become the thematic plot of the novel. The Nouveau Roman writers have written novels based on subject matter that is generated by arbitrary thematic complexes. 

The idea of generating a novel from a set of vocabulary words is a theory that I have used in my novel The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending with the constant variation in characterization that has evolved out of Surrealist and modern art techniques which include the transformation of the abstract characterizations into art images, pencil drawings, oil paintings, time lapse photographic images, and kaleidoscopic digital animation sequences.

Gold Fools (2001) by Gilbert Sorrentino is guided by a simple narrative logic that will appeal to the young reader as the narrator asks questions which reveal a sociological perspective with an awareness of social conflict produced by the intermingling of different ethnic groups, with a historical awareness of German and Italian culture, and with the innovative use of language, including coined words or western vernacular. You might compare Gold Fools (2001) to Alphabetical Africa (1974) by Walter Abish, a novel based on alphabetical constraints, to An Honest Ghost (2013) by Rick Whitaker, a novel based on quotations, and to Yellow Back Radio Broke Down (1969) by Ishmael Reed, a modern western based on a poetic monologue. 

The idea of writing an innovative novel in the interrogatory tense has produced a masterwork that has more literary significance than usual because it is exploring new techniques in narration, and the innovative American novel is a genre that Gilbert Sorrentino has excelled at with Gold Fools (2001), a novel that reveals a compassionate intellect exploring themes from the American west.

David Detrich lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where he has just completed The Convergence of Two Narrative Lines Ascending, an ultramodern Surrealist novel written in minimal squares. He is working on Dream the Presence of the Circular Breast Starfish Topography, a monumental Surrealist novel written with innovative typographical design. His first novel Big Sur Marvels & Wondrous Delights (2001) is available from Amazon. He edits Innovative Fiction Magazine and Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations.

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