Acute, intimate and exceedingly fair, Sorrentino’s memoir is a post-mortem that examines not the causes of his parents’ deaths but the endurance and effects of their confounding marriage ... Vicki is a product of the kill-or-be-killed Lower East Side, and the scenes set there in the family’s early days in the 1960s, before they moved to a brittle, elite art commune in Greenwich Village, are fierce and vivid ... more than resentment or self-pity or even grief, what animates this memoir is the very human curiosity about the psychology of one’s parents and therefore the preconditions of one’s own life ... Sorrentino is wary of leaning on the language of trauma, helpful as it might be, to prescribe familiar roles to his parents, or for that matter, to himself. He is more interested in describing the way it feels to exist in a dysfunctional, sometimes estranged, always paradoxical family—unhappy in its own way—from the inside out, and each description feels truer than the last, closer to the center of the family’s shared nervous system ... he indulges in novelistic and cinematic flourishes—cascading lists, lyrical still lifes—only occasionally. The book’s most deeply felt risks are in the open-veined vulnerability of a line, a stripping away of style ... We may have a greater cultural appetite for eulogies, but an autopsy, in looking directly at the cold corpse of a family in all its gruesomeness and mystery, can be just as profound, and in the hands of a writer as restrained and humane as Sorrentino, just as beautiful.
Most memoirists would shy away from such a horror show, but Sorrentino foregrounds the ugly display, then returns to it in the closing chapters, sinking further into the stench and wretchedness ... the memoir’s glimpses of tattered 1970s New York, the demimonde of early Scorsese, count among its pleasures. The same goes for the peeks into his parents’ halcyon days, 20 years earlier ... It’s a tricky balance, keeping a foot in the past and present at once, but Sorrentino pulls it off so well you would think he was (to choose a reference from his parents’ era) one of the Flying Wallendas ... a memoir out of Job, and some might grow weary of the wailing. Not me, however; my reservations have to do, instead, with how little Sorrentino grants his parents a physical presence. There’s nothing about, say, the feel of his father’s beard; there’s no startling photo of his mother as a young hottie. Material like that would have added dimension to the son’s developing insights. Nevertheless, he achieves remarkable penetration into a damaged personality, and pores knowledgeably over the wreckage left in its wake ... The rueful wit is typical, another of the book’s rewards, and most quips have the snap of the street ... With excoriating candor, with empathy enough to give you gooseflesh, he gleans exciting new clues in that never-ending mystery, the lives of the artists.
Christopher Sorrentino begins Now Beacon, Now Sea: A Son’s Memoir, the meticulous account of his complicated and often fraught relationship with his late mother, with a graphic description of her decaying body as he found it in her Brooklyn apartment. Sorrentino details the recurring scene almost systematically, as if to stave off any immediate expression of emotion or intimacy. It becomes a numbing catalogue both mundane and horrific ... readers searching these pages for insights into his father’s biography and body of work will find themselves firmly rerouted towards the story of his mother’s private existence spent mostly behind closed doors ... Now Beacon, Now Sea is an ambitious balancing act of summary and scene that painstakingly reveals an unsettled mind doing the work of reconfiguring its understanding of the past ... Just as Sorrentino finally accepts the remote and distant woman his mother has decided to be in the years before her death...he relinquishes control of his family’s story by accepting his implication in its collapse, allowing readers to make what they will of all its messy and beautiful parts.