Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Elkin writes in the everyday language of average people about the mundane experiences of common folks. In this story, he peppers his prose with the Yiddish expressions that would be natural to an aging Jewish store owner like his protagonist, Jake Greenspahn. Both the style and the quality of thought expressed in this third-person narrative are those of the store owner; this is the way Jake sees things in his present state, and this is how he thinks about them. However, under the surface of the seemingly mundane words and activities lies the symbolic poetry of great fiction. For example, the foreign spelling of the second syllable of the protagonist’s name, Greenspahn, allows it, as pronounced, to mean both “span” and “spawn.” Humans have a limited span of time in this green world. They spawn offspring, but like all other mortals, they eventually die. When they die before their parents, the biological reason for parenting disappears, especially if they die before producing offspring of their own.

The airtight metal coffin in which young Harold’s body is enclosed will preserve a corpse, not Jake’s living son. Moreover, for Jews, the act of preserving corpses is sacrilegious. It violates the millennia-old Jewish belief that mortal flesh must be returned to the earth, while spirit returns to the divinity. Therefore, even as Jake Greenspahn sees people morally compromised all around him, he himself is morally compromised with respect to his treatment of his dead son’s body. The Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which Greenspahn plans to say for his fallen son, honors a tradition that has been violated by the young man’s coffin. Jake is already prevented from contributing to the physical survival of his people, and his failure compromises him spiritually.