“The proof of a poet,” wrote Walt Whitman at the very end of the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, “is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Whitman never was “absorbed” by his America with anything approaching the tenacious affection with which he absorbed it. The same fate seems to be shared by the most Whitmanic of contemporary American writers, Stanley Elkin, who deserves as wide an audience as possible, for his is arguably the most distinctly American prose being written today, situated as it is in an America that is at once geographical and verbal. Together, his novels and handful of short stories comprise a linguistic landscape in which not only the settings and subjects but also the inflections, rhythms, idioms, and (most important) the obsessive syntax (the syntax of obsession) are entirely native-born. One does not merely read an Elkin novel, any more than one merely reads one of Whitman’s poems. One listens to it, to its overpowering energy and its equally overpowering art of exaggeration: his pushing everything—from plot and character to voice and good taste—to the limit, and beyond. Elkin’s debt, or rather his resemblance, to Whitman is modified by his kinship with Mark Twain; an Elkin novel often seems to take place where Huck Finn, grown a bit older, meets Albert Einstein, where vernacular narrative meets the theory of relativity. To his Whitman and Twain, Elkin adds a dose of Louis-Ferdinand Céline to create his own brand of black humor, mixing outrage and Faulknerian sympathy in equal parts, while adding more than a dash of borscht-belt Jewish stand-up comedy.
The comedy does not so much leaven the whole as make it appear still more absurd, as absurd in fact as the world in whose image Elkin’s oddly (but effectively) structured novels are made. Instead of advancing linearly, his plots proceed on the basis of accretion, of one absurdity added to another. There is, therefore, little if any plot as such in an Elkin novel. Instead of focusing on a sequence of events leading to climax and resolution, Elkin focuses on his main character’s obsessive talk. Yet to speak of Elkin’s characters is to miss the mark, for his creations are not characters in any traditional sense of the word; rather, they are the quirks and human oddities that together form a contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress—or Ship of Fools—in which the figures appear nearly allegorical in their import, but in which the allegory is itself ambiguous and therefore not allegorical at all. It is, rather, a fiction full of comic sound and slapstick fury, signifying something at once tragic and comical. This is Elkin’s point, one that he does not so much develop as worry, like a bad tooth.
In Elkin’s latest novel, the rottenness is not in Denmark but in the northern New Jersey town of Lud. Alternately described as a ghost town, a company town, and “a sort of Jewish death farm,” Lud is a literal necropolis, a township of cemeteries where all the permanent residents are dead and all the living ones are transients in the employ of those for whom the burial of Jews is no longer a religious rite but a business practice. The world from which Lud is isolated, but which is yet seems to symbolize, is characterized by a fear of death that is as ludicrous as it is pervasive. Americans have come to fear AIDS so much that they refuse to be buried near one of its victims. (For Lud’s owners AIDS is something of a godsend, a deus ex machina at a time of longer lives made possible by medical advances; though bad for the nerves, AIDS is nevertheless good for business.) This crippling fear of death serves to mask a second and more troubling phobia: fear of life. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Jerry Goldkorn, the Rabbi of Lud, is particularly stricken. His story exists as an odd if not exotic hybrid, a grafting of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” onto Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. The result is, after The Franchiser (1976) and The Magic Kingdom (1985), Elkin’s most amusing and most disturbing novel about that most characteristic Elkin theme, the efforts of a marginal man to make sense of his Job-like but senseless sufferings in a world where disease and death hold dominion, where remission is chancy and reprieve impossible.
Not surprisingly, in Elkin’s world in general and in Lud in particular, grotesques are the norm. (The root of all that is ludicrous lies in Lud, the Latin word for “play.”) There are, for example, Goldkorn’s wife, Shelley, who speaks a pidgin Yiddish and who is turned on by her husband’s rabbinical accoutrements, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Constance, who possesses a “sort of perfect pitch for heartache” and who despite her name runs away from home. Another child, a boy, was stillborn and had one leg shorter than the other. In this as in other Elkin novels, cripples—whether physiological or psychological—predominate; nothing is ever quite whole. Sal, the town barber, does what most barbers do—he talks to his customers even though all of them are corpses being prepared for burial. Seals, the company stonecutter, is (given the logic at play in Elkin’s world) an anti-Semite. Even their employers seem the misshapen halves of one badly made body: Tober obsessively saves every penny he can in order to ensure his family’s financial well-being, while Shull, a bachelor, just as obsessively spends all that he earns. Elkin’s uncanny ability to push grotesquerie to the limit while maintaining the semblance of the real world (as conjured, it seems, by the National Enquirer) is nowhere better evident than in the legal deposition Connie makes, describing a visitation by the Mother of God who came to Lud to harrow the souls of righteous Jews—a harrowing which...