Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers Themes

Stanley Elkin

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Everything in “Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers” is tainted, marked by contradictions. People are sympathetic and self-seeking. The Irish police officer means well, but he shakes people down for two dollars and change a week. Margolis wants to be helpful, but he cheats customers. Jake’s employees and customers both sustain him and rip him off. The taint hits even young Harold.

Jake’s loss has depressed him and turned his vision dark, saturnine. According to primitive medicine, the cure for black moods is defecating, the elimination of black bile, but Jake is constipated. His wife, acquaintances, and employees tell him he has to let go, move on with life, but with his son dead and with no grandchildren, literally Jake is lost; he cannot relinquish his sense of loss.

At best, life entails compromises, but Jake’s life is utterly compromised. Mortally wounded, he can compromise no more. He cannot countenance police, employees, colleagues, or customers who, though generally helpful, cheat in small ways. He wants everything to be wholly what it should be, but even poor Traub, whose very name means trouble, is silently an object of envy because he has living offspring.

Stanley Elkin, a product of the school of understated potently symbolic fiction, speaks to the issues of human fallibility and what it takes to survive in a mortal world. There are links that are intentionally left open in the story, even as life itself contains unresolved possibilities. Will Frank’s cramp develop into an illness that kills him, as old Harold seems to sense? How did young Harold die? Was the note in Harold’s handwriting actually a suicide note or was it only, as Greenspahn suspects, an unfilled order? In either case, Harold never filled the order mortal existence puts in at people’s births, to carry the human species forward to the next generation. The only certainties Elkin embodies in this story are human imperfection and the fact of death.