Mulligan Stew
by Gilbert Sorrentino
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006) led a life as
intertextual as his fictions.  In the Army
Medical Corps during the Korean War, he
met up with William Carlos Williams, and a
letter from Sorrentino shows up in Williams’
most celebrated longer work
Paterson.  Later
during his stint as an
editor at Grove Press,
his projects included
The Autobiography of
Malcolm X
and other
transgressive works of
various stripes.  But
his own books would
take second seat to
none in their daring
and sheer cussedness.  
Yet brews so strong were hardly likely to
find a mainstream audience.  It was all too
revealing that when news of his death was
published on a blog, it came in the form of
a missive from his son, Christopher
Sorrentino, encouraging word-of-net passage
of the news, "since it’s not a 100% sure
thing that the
Times will pay him any more
attention in death than they did in life."   
When the
Times finally got around to
running its obit days later, it capped its
coverage with a quote from a critic who
assured us that Gilbert Sorrentino was not a
writer of high quality.  It could have almost
been a passage from Sorrentino's own work,
where much of the fun comes from seeing
pompous verdicts of just this sort put on
display and turned back on their
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Mulligan stew, in the parlance of cooking, is an
improvised soup whose origins can be traced back
to hobos and transients at the start of the 20th
century.  The hungry hobo invariably finds a small
amount of meat and potatoes in the broth, but the
rest of the stew draws on whatever ingredients can
be begged, borrowed or stolen.  Gilbert Sorrentino’s
Mulligan Stew (1979), a classic
of postmodern fiction, is a com-
parable hodgepodge of diverse
components, sometimes savory, at
other times apparently intended to
stick in your throat.   A few pieces
of gristle here even border on the
indigestible.  Still one cannot help
but admire a cook who is so daring
and unconventional in mixing and
matching whatever comes to hand.

Anthony Lamont is struggling to write a detective novel,
and both this story and the travails of its author provide
two of the many layers in
Mulligan Stew.   But Sorrentino
embeds these complementary (but never intersecting)
plot lines into a crazy quilt of meta-narratives or—yes,
you've guessed it—meta-narratives-within-the-meta-
narrative.   The main characters in Lamont’s book-within-
a-book—Martin Halpin and his friend and colleague
Ned Beaumont, whom Halpin may or may not have
murdered—lead their own lives outside the frame of the
novel, and plot to runaway to another, better literary
work.   Indeed, both of these characters have already
enjoyed modest parts in classic works of fiction:  you
will find Halpin in Joyce's
Finnegans Wake, where he
plays a bit role, while Ned Beaumont comes from the
less highbrow environs of Dashiell Hammett.  Both are
in love with Daisy Buchanan, who you may remember
The Great Gatsby.  No wonder they are unhappy
with their ill-use in Lamont’s travesty of a mystery story.

Even before the readers arrive at the opening chapter of
Mulligan Stew, they know that the author here is playing
by different rules.  In front of the title page, where
gushing blurbs usually reside, one finds a series of
rejection notes from various publishers. “Thanks so
much for thinking of us for Gilbert Sorrentino’s
,” writes editor Charlotte Bayless. “Everything in the
book has the touch of a virtuoso.  Trouble is, I got
bored, and so did another reader.  The book is so long it
took us the better part of two weeks to read it. It is also
a book that is terribly bookish and only a very special
audience will take to it all.”  “One of our readers
thought the novel rather dismally uninformed as far as
the female characters and their presentation,” Editor-in-
Chief Sheldon Corthell comments.  “This novel within a
novel within a novel—if that is what it is—would find
few readers, I fear,” chimes in publisher Morroe Reiff.  

Of course, the authors of post-modern novels can't
resist presenting writers and editors as characters, and
Sorrentino is no exception.   Halpin and Beaumont, the
two key personages at the heart of the murder mystery,
both work in the publishing industry, and most of the
complications in the parallel plot involving author
Lamont result from intrigues in the world of letters.   
His rivalries and vendettas with other authors, critics and
academics provide much of the humor in Sorrentino’s
expansive effort.  

But the most entertaining sections of
Mulligan Stew are
those in which the protagonists in Lamont’s novel share
their own off-the-record accounts of what it’s like to be
a character in a meandering experimental book.   They
complain about the work, the bad dialogue and the other
embarrassing requirements of the job, as well as the pay
scale.  (Seven-and-a-half dollars per page is specified as
a fair and reasonable wage.)   Narrator Halpin even
keeps a secret journal, which details his life and times
when not engaged in pushing Lamont's mystery story
forward.  My favorite interlude in
Mulligan Stew presents
a gathering of jaded former fictional characters sitting
around the camp fire and sharing stories of all the bad
books in which they had appeared.

“In one job I threw my clothes on at least twenty times.”

“My interest slackens when I’m forced to watch the
smoke from my cigarette curl lazily in the air.”

“Especially when it’s blue smoke—and it’s
always blue

Etc. etc.

Meanwhile our author-protgaonist Lamont is oblivious to
the dissent simmering in the ranks.  He cherishes high
hopes for his novel.  “It seems quite clear that this book
will establish me as the most interesting spokesman for
the American avant-garde, and for Sur-fiction, as well as
Ur-fiction, and Post-Modern fiction to boot.”  During
the course of
Mulligan Stew, Lamont experiences setback
after setback—to his reputation, his finances, even (and
perhaps especially) his love-life.  But through it all he
perseveres with his grand new book, as we follow the
progress chapter by chapter.

Sorrentino is brilliant and insufferable by turns here.  
The New York Times reported in 2010 that this novel,
despite its reputation as a classic of sorts, has only sold  
25,000 copies in total since its initial release—and I can’t
say I am surprised.   Only the hardiest readers will
survive this obstacle course disguised as a 500-page
book..  Sorrentino will impress with his biting satire on
one page, and then launch into a seemingly interminable
list on the next.    Just when the plot is getting steamy,
he will insert a lengthy academic paper on advanced
mathematics, or the entire text of a publisher’s catalog.  
And the forty page "masque" that appears midway in
Mulligan Stew neither advances the plot, entertains the
reader, nor achieves any measurable coherence—it is to
the narrative what speed bumps are to a daily commute.

But there are more than enough fireworks in
to compensate for our author’s bag of quirks and
smirks.  Risk-taking on this scale does not happen
without a few mishaps and spin-outs. As to the hardships
involved in getting to the final page….well, all I can say
is: “No pain, no gain.” The bottom line:  on any short list
of must-read post-modern novels, this book demands a
place.    And, while we are at it, maybe we will also
Mulligan Stew a spot in the Ur-fiction and Sur-
fiction pantheon as well.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
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Further Clues:

Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino by Alexander Laurence

"How Mulligan Stew Uses Old Lines to Slam Pretentious
Authors" by Scott Esposito

Interview with Gilbert Sorrentino by Barry Alpert

Recipe for Mulligan Stew
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Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

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Other articles and feature:
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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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