Gilbert Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn in 1929 to a Sicilian-born father and a third-generation Irish mother. He was raised in Roman Catholic milieus and blue-collar neighborhoods, which form the setting for two of his novels. When he was eighteen years old, he moved across the river to investigate the cultural centers of Manhattan and enrolled in Brooklyn College, but a stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1951 interrupted his education. He decided to become a writer after two years in the Army and started a novel that was eventually aborted. He returned to Brooklyn College in 1955 and founded the magazine Neon with, among others, Hubert Selby, Jr., with whom he formed a lifelong friendship based partly on their common background.
The Darkness Surrounds Us, his first book of poetry, appeared in 1960 and was followed by another collection, Black and White, in 1964. The following year, Sorrentino started what was to become a long and distinguished teaching career with a course at Columbia University, and he published his first novel, The Sky Changes, in 1966. He worked at Grove Press until 1970 as an assistant, then an editor; his first editing assignment was Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). This was followed by teaching stints at the Aspen Writers’ Workshop, Sarah Lawrence College, and the New School for Social Research. In 1979 he was appointed Edwin S. Quain Professor of Literature at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, and in 1982 he joined the faculty of Stanford University, where he taught creative writing until his retirement in 1999.