Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Stanley Elkin’s stories are populated by chronic complainers, whose energies are devoted to lamentation over failures of health, business, love, or aspiration, and by glib finaglers, who ooze oily confidence and dispense inside dope. These are the residents of Elkin’s short-story collection Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers: Nine Stories (1965); each has a code, myth, or obsession to sum up society and his place in it. Testifying to the precept that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world, they share a faith in verbal extravagance as a means of staking out claims for the self. Whether he is after influence, sympathy, or simply an audience, every character is an ear-bender, a salesperson, a cajoler, a philosopher. Talk is the common currency of the anxious and the fanatical alike.

Ed Wolfe is a particularly proficient negotiator in an environment that highlights the intimate relationship between identity and expression. The exploitative way he handles people over the telephone, however, dehumanizes the bill collector as well as those he duns. It intensifies the orphan’s divorce from the human community. Wolfe’s subsequent selling off of everything he owns looks like the programmatic suicide of a man at loose ends; moreover, it may be interpreted either as the bullying method of the bill collector turned inward or as an upgrading of what for him has been a prolonged search for authenticity. At the end of the story, Ed Wolfe, shaved to the bone, has reached bottom; yet even though he is dislocated and desperate among strangers, the closing image of Mary Roberta’s brief act of compassion may be a foundation on which to begin rebuilding his life.

In other words, Ed Wolfe’s humiliation may be prefatory to a return to life. The vitality of a strange black woman may serve as an energy transfusion for a man who has been riven by guilt and spiritual isolation. However indifferently he observes the climactic event of the story (and even if he is still not ready to be groomed for virtue), there exists the possibility of a reversal of his depletion. Perhaps he has been purged, in which case he may now be prepared to discover the self for which he has been searching.