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The Sky Changes
Gilbert Sorrentino

The Sky Changes
Gilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive Press
1 564781 83 6

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For several years now, Dalkey Archive Press has been reprinting some of the finest, lesser-known novels of the twentieth century. New to this list is Gilbert Sorrentino’s The Sky Changes. First published in 1966, later re-issued in a slightly revised form in 1986, the novel, which focuses on a divorcing couple with laser-like intensity, remains as timely as when it first appeared.

Before the title page, we have an epigraph provided by William Carlos Williams: “Divorce is/the sign of knowledge in our time/divorce! divorce!” And the novel then concentrates on a couple always referred to as the “husband” and the “wife”, never by name. They have two young kids, a boy and a girl, and their marriage is well on the way to falling apart when the book opens. Native New Yorkers, they have decided to take a cross-country drive to Mexico where ostensibly they will make an effort to piece together their marriage. The new environment, the fresh landscape, will work wonders for them, or so at least the husband hopes. The novel is told in the third person but primarily through his thoughts and impressions, and throughout the journey we watch his despair and disillusion grow. He has moments of optimism, moments when he thinks a new start for their family may be possible, but there is always an underlying sadness.

Complicating things is a fifth person along for the trip, a man. He is a mutual friend of the husband and wife, a man brought along to do the driving. Apparently he loves to drive and is quite skilled at it. But as they leave New York behind and move west and then south, this man takes on a sinister presence. He is quiet and inscrutable. He and the wife seem to be getting closer. The husband regrets having asked him to come along for the ride, and an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion overtakes the car.

Besides being a novelist, Gilbert Sorrentino is also a prolific poet, and his skill with language is apparent in every paragraph of this book. His descriptions of the landscape–Mississippi cotton fields, New Mexican mesas–dazzle. But at the same time, the America this group moves through is a bleak and vacuous one. It is scarred by waste and commercialization. In Ohio, a bar the husband enters “is full of unemployed textile workers, defeated farmers”. Memphis, Tennesse is “A city of used-car lots and garages, beaten Negroes, shabby whites”. Missouri is proud of its outlaw heritage; it is Jesse James country, but “the cave that the gang used has a shoddy restaurant and a gift shop built into it”. This is not the romantic America of Jack Kerouac going on the road, but an America filled with apathy and lost dreams, cheap souvenirs and “monotonous, straight” superhighways. As the husband puts it in his reflections, “He had left a stable misery, a possible misery, to find the same misery on the road…”

If all this sounds depressing, well… it is, a little. Along the road we catch glimpses of other couples, and few of them seem any happier than our couple in the car. Everybody drinks too much; every couple has its history of mutual betrayals and recriminations. Still, Sorrentino writes with such unsparing honesty that the whole journey becomes fascinating. He describes the shifting moods of his characters as deftly as he evokes their environments. In 139 dense pages he charts with beauty and precision a trip through a world of hope, loss, and pain.

Reviewed by Scott Adlerberg


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