(Masterpieces of American Literature)

If Push the Bully represents one extreme of character in Elkin’s fiction, then Ben Flesh, protagonist and narrator of The Franchiser, represents the other. “A Poetics for Bullies” and The Franchiser are also representative of two other aspects of Elkin’s writing. One is generic; there is the story’s depiction of “acute character” manifesting itself in a crisis situation versus the novel’s presentation of “chronic character” manifesting itself over a serendipitously (or whimsically) developed series of episodes. The other difference is autobiographical. “A Poetics for Bullies” and the other stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers were all written before “anything bad” had ever befallen Elkin; The Franchiser was written after the author had suffered heart attacks, temporary blindness, and multiple sclerosis.

“Deprived of all the warrants of personality,” Ben is a man “without goals, without obsession, without drive” but in possession of a substantial inheritance from his wealthy godfather. That inheritance enables Ben, who has “no good thing of his own . . . to place himself in the service of those who had.” For Ben, this means buying franchises (buying names), in effect becoming Evelyn Wood (speed reading), Fred Astaire (dance studio), Mr. Softee (ice cream), Colonel Sanders (chicken dinners), America’s Innkeeper (Holiday Inn), and the like.


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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The protagonist of The Franchiser suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that deteriorates the nervous system. Between attacks of the disease, Ben Flesh roams the American landscape, “the packed masonry of states,” looking after the massive network of franchises he has built upon an inheritance from his godfather, Julius Finsberg, an industrial kingpin. What Ben inherits from Finsberg, who has cheated Ben’s father out of his share of a successful business, is not a substantial sum of money but the prime interest rate—“Not money but the use of money.” With the low interest rates of the preinflationary 1960’s, Ben is able to build up a financial empire consisting entirely of franchises—Fred Astaire Dance Studios, Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream parlors. In fact, Ben has his hand in literally every franchise in the United States. Along with the interest rate, Ben has inherited a responsibility for Finsberg’s children, eighteen in all. Like Ben, each of the Finsbergs suffers from an incurable disease, which is their physical inheritance from old Julius, bearer of bad genes. As he invests their money in his franchises, Ben becomes a lover to each of the Finsberg daughters and a confidant to each son, so that, between Ben and the children, business and familial relationships are interchangeable.

As the novel begins, Ben’s health is failing badly, but no more badly than his franchises, which are losing money because of the rising interest rates of the mid-1970’s. Consequently, the Finsberg children...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dougherty, David C. Stanley Elkin. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A series of critical essays that cover Elkin’s major works and offer insight into his primary themes. Includes a helpful bibliography and index.

Elkin, Stanley. “A Conversation with Stanley Elkin.” Interview by David C. Dougherty. Literary Review 34 (Winter, 1991): 175-195. Elkin discusses the influence of Saul Bellow on his writing, the various inspirations for many of the characters in his novels, and his attitude toward certain critical responses to his work. He briefly talks about how his experience with multiple sclerosis influenced the way he wrote some of the scenes in The Franchiser.

Elkin, Stanley. “ A Hat Where There Never Was a Hat’: Stanley Elkin’s Fifteenth Interview.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Summer, 1995): 15-26. Elkin discusses why he would prefer not to write mystery or detective novels, the benefits of a word processor, the impact of fiction on a reader’s life, and victimization in relation to his protagonists. Although he does not talk about his novels in depth, his views as revealed in this interview are reflected in his work.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “Stanley Elkin: An Introduction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15 (Summer, 1995): 7-14. A solid overview of Elkin’s work. Saltzman examines the metaphorical and poetic narrative voice that Elkin uses, the criticism of Elkin’s style, and the significance of obsession and humor in Elkin’s work. His analysis includes specific examples from Elkin’s writings.