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The Disappearing of a Great American Novel

Vince Passaro’s ‘Crazy Sorrow’ passed through the race, class, and gender shitstorms to become the best new novel no one has read yet

Marco Roth
March 27, 2023
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Rutherford Townes
Rutherford Townes
Rutherford Townes
Rutherford Townes

What if I told you that one of the most beautifully written, sexy, emotionally intelligent, thoroughly alive, and greatly American novels written in at least the last 10 years had passed practically unnoticed by the culture at large? No prizes, no splashy author profiles or interviews, only a few tone-deaf, half-hearted, hair-splitting reviews. The novel isn’t avant-garde or “experimental” in its form, the author doesn’t belong to an officially sanctioned oppressed identity group, and the prose isn’t particularly challenging unless you choke on the word “cock.” It features New York City, the best 9/11 scenes that anyone has written since Ken Kalfus’ equally invisibilized A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, while also dealing with putatively important social themes like globalization of supply chains, gentrification, mortgage-backed securities, and the rise of a multibillion-dollar corporation that sounds a lot like Starbucks coffee. At 448 pages of standard-size print, it’s in the ballpark of recent supposedly important and lavishly praised novels by Jonathan Franzen, Cormac McCarthy, and Hanya Yanagihara; it was published in September of 2021, by Simon & Schuster, a respectable publisher of commercial and literary fiction, hardly lacking in publicity resources or clout.

What is happening here? Comparatives and superlatives befuddle: “beautifully written,” “sexy,” “emotionally intelligent,” “thoroughly alive,” OK, but compared to what? Book jackets are awash in such hollow-sounding praises. The novel is an art form whose raw materials are the passions, just as music works in time and the visual arts shape space. D.H. Lawrence spoke for what most serious (meaning fully engaged) readers feel in their hearts when he called the novel, “the one bright book of life” that could make “the whole man tremble.” Those words, and the novels behind them—full of sex, death, and overwhelming intensities of emotion, helped spark a modern critical and artistic sensibility that eventually reached a bunch of intelligent working-class kids—like Lawrence himself, who came from the coal miners of Nottinghamshire. Some came from the outer boroughs of New York City, as well as Montreal, and Newark, New Jersey. Some were Jews: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Harold Bloom, Mailer, Leonard Michaels, Paley, Gornick, others Italian and Irish: Sorrentino, all the McCourts, Pete Hamill, DeLillo, and now, a belated inheritor of the aspirational, passionate working class tradition of the novel, Vince Passaro.

The critic who reads “for a living” is not a dry scold or a keeper of now obscure genealogies (and so Lawrence begat Leavis, whose acolytes crossed to the public universities and small liberal arts schools, etc.). The art is in attending to the aliveness that vibrates in the works of others. But what if the critic one day wakes up into a culture that has come to treat nearly everything he believed about literature and life—the ways that good literature not only is “true to life” or “lifelike” but actually gives one the feeling of being alive, the thrum of blood, the joys and pains of desire, separation, experience—to be not so much wrong as merely insignificant, and unworthy of notice?

This was the feeling I got from reading novelist Adelle Waldman’s New York Times review of Crazy Sorrow, which opens with a question she doesn’t try to answer, “Why is sex so boring?” Is this what now passes for a progressive hot take in the literary world? Sex might be boring for some people; too bad for them. Sex writing—which is at issue here rather than actual sex—can certainly be boring. Sometimes this is by design—as in the machinelike repetitions of the Marquis de Sade, where characters are meat puppets forced into sex to illustrate a philosophy. Other times it’s an accident of the author’s lack of command of language and feeling, and the resulting failure to bring bodies to life on the page. Sometimes the language is beautiful but the sex described feels fake or empty: There is a lot of “fucking”—as it’s now called—in James Salter’s once overpraised—now overderided—The Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, but the fucking is like flying a combat jet or daredevil skiing—both activities which Salter also enjoyed and wrote about well. There is also a lot of “fucking” in Crazy Sorrow, a novel that begins, innocently enough, at the height of the so-called “sexual revolution” in 1976, at the bicentennial celebration at New York Harbor seen from the landfill beach that would later become Battery Park City:

A night of celebration, a million or more marched from subways to the river, George among them, Anna too, his first real vision of her on the train, amid that throng. When they got to the street the crowds expanded, the people like pilgrims, like pictures you saw of pilgrims, moving in a stupor of faith down Cortlandt and Rector, up Water and Wall, a multitude of believers in the moral force behind the founding of the republic. The nation’s tarnished history lay light on their shoulders—they were partygoers, after all, it was the bicentennial and a redemptive-seeming election was on.

Does this jaunty, efficient invocation of a near religious civic experience bore you? Does the tantalizing hint of what two people amid a throng of souls at a moment of national reckoning might do with each other bore you? If so, should you be reading novels at all?

George and Anna are college kids, she Barnard, he Columbia, and they sound like it:

“Things happen over and over,” she said, “I thought you’d read Zarathustra.”

“I never said I’d read Zarathustra ... I’m still working on the Birth of Tragedy. My analysis so far is, Nietzsche probably would have dug the Stones. They have the whole Dionysian-Apollonian thing down.”

“I’m not seeing the Apollo part,” she said.

“You must be hard to please,” he said.

“You have no idea,” she said.

The silence fell between them, the locking of eyes that they hadn’t had the nerve for on the subway, and then she kissed him ... They lay on his bed and kissed and kissed and he moved his hands across her body, barely touching her, just grazing her skin, like the wind. She arched toward it.

It’s not just the dialogue, but the textures and rhythms of student life, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on the record player as they lie on the bed, the cinderblock wall of the dorm entrance “painted a cold white that glowed in the lamplight.” The tryst is immediately followed by George reporting to the offices of the Columbia Spectator, then at Ferris Booth Hall, “a dollop of modernity dropped amid the neo-classical effusions of Columbia’s McKim, Mead, and White-designed campus.” The juxtaposition is jarring by design, capturing that abrupt transition from intimacy to bantering disclosure that governs campus life. “Details are the story!” George’s editor demands, grilling him about the encounter, and George delivers.

Passaro attended Columbia as part of a generation of students who, as he writes, “could shoot up everyday on the steps [of Low Library] and find no institutional disapproval ... an inheritance of the riots, the philosophy since then to leave the kids alone and keep them drunk, stoned, strung out, just as long as they were not engaged and taking the dean of students prisoner in his office again,” and the opening sections of the novel are a determined evocation of how this uneasy, sanctioned hedonism couples with the anxious mix of intellectual and professional striving.

Even if Crazy Sorrow were only a campus novel about Columbia kids in the late 1970s, it would still be one of the most evocative, fearless novels about the actual experience of American university life that anyone has yet attempted or pulled off. Here, before massive student debt and the ruthless race to join the global elite, is a little reminder of where college was supposed to lead—not to middle-class respectability but toward the democratization of an enlightenment project that was also, as the historian Peter Gay named it, “An education of the senses.”

As was the university, so was, once, the city: An acid trip sequence involving George and Anna on the Staten Island Ferry and a blizzard walk to St. Patrick’s Cathedral with George and his gay friend Louis combine some of the best writing about New York City with the aura of transcendent possibility that hovers about us during these hours of suspended youth. Passaro’s title alludes to Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” but, just as there are overtones in music, ghost tones, we hear in these moments a different Dylan song, “the chimes of freedom flashing,” right as we become aware that we’re reading this from the standpoint of freedom deferred.

It requires admirable gusto, as a novelist, to write about sophomores being sophomoric without being satirical, as is usual for the campus novel genre (think Zadie Smith’s On Beauty) and also without sliding into nostalgia. Passaro handles this with a particular kind of indirect irony that requires us to notice that certain things should pass unnoticed, just like how the World Trade towers show up in the opening bicentennial sequence as a directional orientation rather than a piece of now freighted symbolism, “the piece of property on which the crowd gathered was a landfill, a moonscape of gritty dunes plunked into the river behind the Trade Towers.” All the same, we know what that view will become, and this gives us the sense that we are at the beginning of an adventure into lives that could and perhaps ought to have gone otherwise.

It’s the same with the sex that runs through the novel. For all the frankness that’s supposed to bore New York Times readers, it’s what’s playing in the background that also matters. Here’s Anna on a historic summer night in 1978 with one of the many boyfriends she tries on once she and George break up:

On this overheated and hazy night they were on the roof of the building looking at the fires burning just across Morningside and from there eastward, all the way to the far side of Harlem and up into the South Bronx; she counted twenty visible fires with no other lights, no greens or reds at the intersections, no yellow light in stamp-sized windows, all black on black ... she had Francis’s cock out of his cutoff shorts and stiffening under her fingers. He was wearing sneakers with brown socks and she was wishing he weren’t.

Sex bores when it’s dealt with as a thing apart from the lives and desires of the people having it. One boring contemporary view of heterosexual sex is that it’s only a means to two highly limited ends: biological and social reproduction, as if some tiny Darwin-shaped homunculus inside us deprives heteros of agency, character, and human interest once they start kissing or touching each other. It’s no accident that Waldman’s review carefully carves out an exception to her boring rule for the novel’s one gay sex scene.

Yet Passaro has not only dared but succeeded in writing something that many in today’s intelligentsia have pronounced impossible: an actual heterosexual romance. Like most great novels, it’s an updating of the genre’s origins in a set of ancient Greek stories—Daphnis and Chloe, Eros and Psyche, Odysseus and Penelope—about two people who come together and then are continually driven apart by a host of forces only partly within their control. Here’s Anna “playing with fire,” giving herself to the wild destructive energy unleashed in New York City’s blackout, or using sex as an objective correlative to the feelings aroused by the whole city apparently going to hell. She’s found this slightly annoying pliant boy with a “heavy cock” and the wrong socks, and is using him to try to feel something that is both in tune with the moment and above it.

Most scenes in Crazy Sorrow work at this level, braiding the erotic and the social so effectively that each reflects and deepens the other. Anna’s encounter with another boy whose slimy mixture of self-pity and ambition, she realizes, means that he will end up voting for Reagan is particularly good: “She pushed down roughly on him and she thought: So this is what it’s about, this is what it is to feel powerful, this is what it is to feel like a man: what one needed to experience power was to find an advantage and use it, to abandon the idea of equality or justice or love.” Shouldn’t every novel do this? Sure there’s a lot of “fucking,” but Passaro not only believes but shows us that there’s never really such thing as “meaningless” sex, only people whose sense of self-importance requires them to deny the meaning that’s right there in front of them.

It’s not a coincidence that the same critic who finds sex to be boring and gets irritable about the effort to write and portray bodies in motion also fails to remark on the political elements in a novel explicitly framed by the 1976 bicentennial and the 9/11 attacks and published on the 20th anniversary of the Twin Towers assaults. Anna and George aren’t traditional active “seekers” but gropers in the dark, moving both toward and away from each other and toward and away from the sources of power that surround their lives. They don’t know more than anyone else. They feel their way through life, just like most of us, until life smacks them around. It’s not always pleasant, but as readers and also as citizens, we dismiss these unpleasantries at the peril of our actual lives.

The novel follows Anna and George and their bodies into their crisscrossing, postgraduate lives of near misses and eventual tragic reunion; Anna, the smarter one, becomes a lawyer—starting in nonprofits and ending up in “compliance” at Morgan, marries badly, and continues to play out all of her ambivalences through a series of sexual encounters. George drifts out of journalism into odd jobs, marries somewhat more comfortably, and ends up getting in at the ground floor of a retail coffee chain that will make him a billionaire.

Life isn’t fair. Yet George and Anna aren’t star-crossed lovers; they are separated by the things that separate each of us from our true loves: insecurity, fear, estrangement from ourselves, “Something to do with violence / A long way back, / and wrong rewards, And arrogant eternity,” as Philip Larkin put it.

Crazy Sorrow is a novel that looks hard into the fate of Eros during the past five decades of capitalism and does not love what it finds. Still, it looks at it all the same, without prudishness. This actually does make it sound boring: a novel with a thesis instead of a capacious novel about the richly imagined experiences of two fairly representative American individuals from 1976 to 2001, and then up to the present. What if I just told you that Anna Karenina is a novel about freedom and necessity inside “the unhappy family” of czarist Russia? That would also be true, but it would also miss the point of every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way. Passaro’s dedication to his characters’ sorrows and their ecstasies, sometimes at the same time, written out in the bodies he so passionately evokes and follows through time, provides its own joys and its own redemptions. It’s both surpassingly strange and at the same time entirely representative of this moment that today’s respectable tastemakers want to pretend that it never happened.

Marco Roth is Tablet’s Critic at Large.