Stanley Elkin Essay - Critical Essays

Stanley Elkin American Literature Analysis

Elkin is a difficult writer to place within the scheme of existing literary categories. He is not, other than by birth and upbringing, a typically Jewish American writer in the tradition that stretches from Abraham Cahan to Saul Bellow. The rich verbal texture of his work notwithstanding, he is not an experimental writer (a term he especially disliked); nor, despite the bleakness and grotesquerie of his fiction, did he think of himself as a black humorist. Moreover, for all the density of social detail in his stories and novels, Elkin did not see his fiction as being in any way sociological or his role as writer as involving any social obligations other than that of writing well. Despite, or perhaps because of, these many disclaimers, Elkin is an important if idiosyncratic writer whom Robert Coover has rightly called “one of America’s great tragicomic geniuses.”

At the heart of Elkin’s fiction lies his sense of character and the ways in which character manifests itself. Elkin’s style draws on and extends the American tradition of vernacular writing begun by Mark Twain and continued by such writers as Ring Lardner and Saul Bellow. Elkin, however, does not so much employ the vernacular perspective as exploit it, pushing it beyond the merely colloquial into the realm of what he called “heroic extravagance.” This “rhetorical intensity,” as Coover terms it, is one that Elkin shares with his characters, whose compulsive, even crazed “arias” serve “to introduce significance into what otherwise may be untouched by significance.”

In Elkin’s fiction, even in his essays, speech is character and character is speech. The typical Elkin hero is obsessive, isolated (frequently an orphan and therefore free to follow his obsession), powerless yet egocentric, and resentful yet oddly, even perversely sympathetic, most sympathetic in his (less often, her) need to speak, to tell his tale. He is at once envious and insecure, humbled and vindictive, in a word, “driven,” not by anything in particular but by need itself in a world of the “never enough.” Not likable in any conventional sense, he nevertheless earns the reader’s respect insofar as he embodies, in Elkin’s words, “the egocentric will pitted against something stronger than itself.” At his best, at his most verbally egocentric, he becomes both “crier” and “kibitzer,” hapless whiner and hopeful joker.

Elkin’s characters often have good, albeit grotesquely funny, reasons to complain. In a way, they are all like the title character in “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” who tries to determine his exact worth by converting everything he owns into cash, only to learn that it is not much, certainly not enough. Bobbo Druff, in The MacGuffin, finds himself “on the downhill side of destiny” despite his position as commissioner of streets. With his degree from an “offshore yeshiva,” Jerry Goldkorn is the rabbi of Lud, a cemetery complex in northern New Jersey. Marshall Preminger, in “The Condominium,” finds himself similarly “left out.” Boswell, the hero of Elkin’s first novel, makes the mistake of taking literally the advice offered by the world-famous Dr. Herlitz and so becomes “a strong man” (a professional wrestler) in the first of his several attempts to achieve immortality.

In A Bad Man, Feldman, the felled man, caters to the desires of others, legal and illegal, permissible and perverse, until a computer error sends him to prison. There, rather than throw himself on the warden’s mercy, he rejects the warden’s advice to adjust to the world as it is. Feldman insists upon his innocence. The protagonist of The Dick Gibson Show discovers quite by accident that not one person has been listening to his radio broadcasts, not even the station’s owners or technicians. Later, as host of a late-night radio call-in show, he will enjoy a success that proves no less problematic, as his callers’ obsessions begin to overwhelm him.

Control is also the key for Alexander Main in “The Bailbondsman.” Against all that he can neither understand nor control in his own life, Main asserts his power as bailbondsman to choose who will go (temporarily) free and who will not. Unlike the ostensibly bad men who predominate in Elkin’s fiction, Ellerbee in The Living End is saintly, excessively so. Killed by a robber, he is permitted a glimpse of heaven (which looks “like a theme park”) before being unfairly sent to hell, “the ultimate inner city.” Discovering there “the grand vocabulary” of pain, he learns to speak with the same intensity and extravagance as many of Elkin’s other heroes, all of them suffering the bad luck that comes of just being alive. In this, they are indeed made in their makers’ images: Elkin, with his bad heart and multiple sclerosis, as well as the God of The Living End. This is a God who has created heaven and hell, affliction and, finally, apocalypse, “because it makes a better story.”

Elkin’s jokey fiction is suffused with intimations of mortality. In The Magic Kingdom, Simon Bale organizes a trip to Disney World for a group of English children suffering from various terminal diseases. The children’s fate is cruel, and the novel itself is painfully, unsparingly funny, but the pain, here and elsewhere in Elkin’s fiction, is to a degree offset by the characters’—and the author’s—affirmation of life and spirit of defiance.

This is not to say that Elkin’s fiction resolves itself in any conventional way. Beginning with nothing more than a situation (and in the case of at least one story, nothing more than the word “bailbondsman”), Elkin does not develop his stories and novels in terms of plot and the Enlightenment ethos it implies. Instead, following the rule of whim and the muse of serendipity, he proceeds on the basis of opposition, of “action and respite, tension and release,” obsession and resistance, of “what the character wants to happen and what he does not want to happen.” Elkin’s protagonists move through their worlds comically repeating themselves, “the stammer of personality” asserting itself over and over.

“A Poetics for Bullies”

First published: 1965 (collected in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, 1965)

Type of work: Short story

Against the logic of submission and adaptation, the young protagonist defines himself in terms of his own perverse desires and supercharged rhetoric.

Of the nine stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, “A Poetics for Bullies” was the last to be written and the one Elkin liked best. The story marks Elkin’s breakthrough from his earlier, more realistic, and generally more sedate style to the approach that characterizes his later work. The story’s young protagonist-narrator is the unlovable but irrepressible Push the Bully. Push imposes his perverse will and vision on others, all of them, like Push, grotesques: Eugene, with his overactive salivary glands, fat Frank, Mim the dummy, Slud the cripple, Clob the ugly. A trickster as much by compulsion as by choice, Push claims that were magic real, he would use it to change the world, but because it is not real, he spends his time asserting himself and disillusioning others. Although this “prophet of the deaf” seems in many ways a younger version of one of Saul Bellow’s “reality instructors,” he also resembles the typical Bellow hero, Eugene Henderson, for example, in Henderson the Rain King (1959), whose clamorous “I want, I want” is Push’s own. “Alone in my envy, awash in my lust,” Push feels forever the outsider, though not in any clearly existential sense; he is more the...

(The entire section is 3187 words.)