A book does not begin with its first word, nor does it end with its last. Rather, it includes all of its physical and typographical features—including the dust jacket, the purpose of which seems less and less a matter of protecting the book from dust. The jacket for Stanley Elkin’s Pieces of Soap is a case in point. There is the usual flap copy (summary of the contents in the front, author biography in the rear); on the back, “Praise for Stanley Elkin” from a range of writers (neorealist Richard Ford at one end and postmodernist extraordinaire Robert Coover at the other). On the jacket spine, the names of book and author, together with “Essays by,” form a kind of roller-coaster scroll against a brown background. The same information reappears on the jacket front, disassembled and stacked, standing out from the sedate, even somber colors (mainly grays and browns and blues) of the jacket illustration, part of a painting by Elkin’s wife, Joan. The season is winter, the time late afternoon; the trees are bare, but the houses in the background are large, attractive, comfortable looking—the lights already on, like an invitation. Elkin, occupying the entire right side, looks less jovially avuncular than in many of his photographs. His brown hat is just a shade lighter than his well-crumpled trousers and a shade darker than his plaid-lined winter jacket. The beard is familiar; the glasses look less up-to-date than the ones Elkin usually wears. But the glasses are not important; the gaze is: steady and straightforward, serious and determined. His left hand is in his jacket pocket, his right on the head of a cane.
Situated at the exact center of the illustration’s lower half, the cane serves as a realistic detail, a physical prop, and an intertextual sign pointing not just down into the snow but back to another genius of the tragicomical, Charlie Chaplin. But Elkin does not use a cane—or, again like Chaplin, splay his feet—to be funny. These are reminders of Elkin’s multiple sclerosis (MS), as are the footbrace, the bath bench, the raised commode, the wheelchair, and the chair glide which do not figure directly in the painting. They must be back in one of the houses. But where are Elkin’s footprints? Why does he seem to be walking on the snow rather than through it, a wintry Christ, or floating above it, like some figure in Chagall? Something else is missing here. Bespectacled and becaned, Elkin appears to be either stationary, posing, left foot slightly ahead of the right, or caught in mid-stride, the short stride of a man who walks not just with a cane but with a weak heart and MS too. What is missing is what most characterizes Elkin’s writing, the energy.
The dust-jacket illustration introduces Elkin’s other side, Elkin the man, just as Pieces of Soap introduces the other side of Elkin the writer: Elkin the essayist. All the energy that Elkin cannot expend physically, because of his MS, he expends verbally, in his writing, his manuscripts, his MSS, and that is the reason the jacket illustration is mimetic as well as ironic. What accounts for Elkin’s transformation into the kind of writer he has become?
Well, delight in language as language certainly. (I’d swear to that part.) But something less delightful, too.… [M]y father died in 1958 and my mother couldn’t take three steps without pain. Then a heart attack I could call my own when I was thirty-seven years old. Then this, then that. Most of it uncomfortable, all of it boring. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump. Because, as the old saying should go, as long as you’ve got your health you’ve got your naïveté. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that’s what led me toward revenge—a writer’s revenge, anyway; the revenge, I mean, of style.
Although Elkin may write in one of these essays that he is content to be the kind of writer he is—underread and underappreciated—taking pleasure in the practice of his craft rather than in the popular success he once upon a time wished for, it is not modesty or lack of ambition that fuels his wildly brilliant flights into narrative hyperspace. It is anger—and revenge.
The thirty essays collected here cover twenty years: three pieces from the 1970’s, four from the 1990’s, and the rest from the 1980’s. Fully a third originally appeared in literary journals—TriQuarterly, Grand Street, Chicago, Antaeus, and the like—another quarter in mainstream publications such as Esquire, Harper’s, and The New York Times Book Review, and three more in, of all places, Art & Antiques and Ambassador, the Trans-World Airlines (TWA) flight magazine. The remaining seven were first published as forewords and introductions to various books, including four small-press publications of Elkin’s own work. Not one is a throwaway; all are vintage Elkin: irascible, outrageous, flying the flights of the fluid and swallowing soul of a postmodern Walt Whitman. In this sense, Elkin resembles the subject of one of these essays, the pioneer sex researcher Alfred Charles Kinsey: “Nothing human was alien to him. On the other hand, nothing alien was alien to him.” The reader learns a great deal from these essays, which turn out to be as...