Mrs. Ted Bliss is the last novel Elkin published before he died. Elkin was always attuned to the wantings and wasting of the body and its connections to the body politic within and against which his characters measured their successes and, more usually, their failings. In his earlier novel, The Franchiser, Elkin focuses on a man stricken in his prime with MS (after inheriting a fortune from his godfather) and sets Ben Flesh’s cross-country travels against the backdrop of Ben’s own unraveling myelin and the nation’s energy crisis. Mrs. Ted Bliss is, as the title character’s name indicates, no less ironically allegorical but far more retrospective, even elegiac. Published in the middle of the roaring 1990’s with its soaring stock market, Mrs. Ted Bliss offers a sobering and highly affecting memento mori, made all the vivid by Elkin’s characteristically pyrotechnic prose.
This time the pyrotechnics are more subdued, as befits the novel’s aging main character, carefully doled out like a widow’s savings. Not that Mrs. Ted Bliss is financially strapped; she is merely at a loss following the death of the husband—a butcher, a dealer in flesh, sold by the pound—who, like many men of his generation, had done everything for their wives except, naturally, prepare them for widowhood. Dorothy’s story is a bit of Americana, a Jewish urbanized version of American Gothic, a rags-to-riches tale that takes her from Russia to Chicago and finally to Miami Beach where, at novel’s end, she awaits the coming of...
Dorothy “Mrs. Ted” Bliss has lived in her Towers condominium ever since she and her late husband, Ted, first retired to Florida. Now in her early seventies and alone, she appears to her neighbors a pleasant but insubstantial woman, a sort of mascot to the Towers’ self-contained society.
Things are about to change in Dorothy’s life. As the older condo dwellers begin to die, émigrés from South America buy up their units. The original Jewish residents are older and comfortably fixed, but stuffy and set in their ways. The Latinos are younger, stylish, and proud, and are given to the grand gesture and the application of discreet gratuities. The men, especially, project a reined-in animal magnetism that stirs Dorothy’s imagination.
The Towers’ social committee, aware of the growing culture gap between these two groups, tries to counter it with what they call Good Neighbor Nights and international-theme parties. These efforts strike the South Americans as naïve and cheesy, but occasionally some of them attend. In the middle of a card game at one of these parties, Dorothy has her first encounter with two Latin gentlemen, Hector Camerando and Jaime Guttierez. Her life begins to take unexpected turns.
Some weeks after her husband’s death, Dorothy receives a bill from the city for almost two hundred dollars in taxes on Ted’s car. Dorothy does not drive and had always left business matters to her husband. She cannot understand owing money on a car that is already paid for. The two hundred dollars seem an enormous amount for what she thinks is nothing.
Alcibiades Chitral, a gallant Venezuelan, shows up at her front door asking if he can buy Ted’s 1978 Buick LeSabre, making her feel both rescued and flustered. The test drive has some of the undertones of a date to Dorothy, and when Alcibiades offers her five thousand dollars more than the market value for the car, she makes the deal.
Some weeks later, Alcibiades is brought to federal court on drug-dealing and money-laundering charges. Dorothy receives a subpoena to testify as a witness. Her Buick is somehow involved in Alcibiades’s activities. Dorothy’s children, Maxine and Frank, hire her a high-priced local attorney. Dorothy, aghast at the lawyer’s charges, fires her and prevails on retired real-estate lawyer Manny Tressler to represent her pro bono. He gets her through the court appearance but cannot help when drug enforcement officers lay claim to her basement parking space as well as the car. Still, in asking Manny to help, she had made a friend of him. He shows her how to use a checkbook and becomes a sort of counselor-on-life to her, countering her loneliness and ineptness at dealing with the outside world.
Attending a party in importer Tommy Auveristas’s penthouse apartment, Dorothy fidgets uncomfortably at the exotic food and conversation, but she perks up when Tommy treats her as the guest of honor. He offers to get the LeSabre and to have the police blocks removed from Dorothy’s basement parking space. Her children suspect the Latino men’s sudden attentions. They decide their mother needs to be under a local professional’s...