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A Bad Man Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In addition to its disturbing inquiries into the possibility of justice in the American penal system, A Bad Man treats the fundamental Elkin themes of obsession and commercial ventures. Feldman inherits obsessive vending skills from his lunatic father, an itinerant peddler who challenged Leo to sell the "unsalable thing." His career is one of re-defining the limits of what can be done with merchandising. As his enterprises succeed, he ventures further and further into the uncharted and exotic. Eventually, his "basement" store, which originated as serendipity, becomes a vending place for many illegal activities including abortion referrals, prostitution arrangements, firearms sales to fanatics, and illegal drug deals. For Feldman the motive is not profit, but expanding the range of his enterprise for the sake of adventure and entrepreneurship. His excitement is illustrated when he rhapsodizes about one of his most outrageous deals, "this is it. This is" — not the profit, but the excitement of making the unmakeable deal, of pushing the logic of dealing beyond its limits.

The theme of obsession is not, however, limited to Leo's dealing, which takes precedence over his loyalty to family or friends and becomes a definition of his very identity (he calls himself "the master of all I purvey"). Briefly the warden places him in charge of the prison commissary, where he again takes up the role of the obsessive entrepreneur, challenging himself to force the inmates to buy things they do not really want.

In fact the entire class of "bad men" in the prison prove to be, not repeat or intransigent criminals, but obsessive types whose crimes manifest their individuality. An habitual criminal need not be a bad man, but the class of bad men is defined by prison authorities as those whose crimes express their character. The trait all bad men share is that they are compulsive. For example, one is obsessed with becoming the oldest inmate in the American penal system. Such bad men are segregated by their clothing, but more importantly by the harassment the Warden designs especially for them. The novel's dialectic can finally be identified as the a conflict between the exceptional (the class of bad men) and the ordinary (everyone else). Feldman's defeat, his trial and execution by a kangaroo court, manifest Elkin's despairing theme, that all society is conspires against those who have the will, courage, or arrogance to claim to be exceptional.