Arthur Miller’s archetypal twentieth century American tragic hero, Willy Loman, leads as if inevitably to the inarticulate working-class characters of Raymond Carver’s minimalist short stories. By a more circuitous route, Willy also leads to the sprawling, maximalist novels of one of contemporary American fiction’s most undeservedly under-read writers, Stanley Elkin. Brilliant as Carver’s highly regarded fiction is, it comes to the reader in the recognizable and readily assimilated form of Hemingway-like reticence. Elkin’s fiction is altogether different—demanding not because it is difficult (in the erudite style of James Joyce or the opaque manner of Henry James) but because it requires an adjustment of expectations (and as a result a change of reading strategies) on the reader’s part. Elkin’s fiction shows among other things that humor—even black humor—can be just as appropriate a medium for the thwarted aspirations of a Willy Loman as the mode of domestic tragedy, however tempered it may be by contemporary irony, in the stories and novels of Carver and other like-minded, writer-workshop- trained minimalists. In addition, Elkin’s fiction is, as theirs rarely is, interesting page by page, sentence by sentence (rather than merely plot by plot, character by character). In Elkin there is never just the page; there is always page after page. Carver’s characters can only occasionally bring themselves to speak; Elkin’s characters cannot not talk. Drawing on a carnivalesque range of American pop culture, they do not so much speak as spiel, not so much argue as harangue, obsessively, compulsively, endlessly, never letting one word suffice when twenty will do.
Elkin’s linguistic manic depressives are an outraged and outrageous lot: a modern James Boswell; a department-store owner sent to jail for being “a bad man”; a late-night radio talk-show host; a Cincinnati bail bondsman; a kindhearted liquor-store owner murdered during a holdup and sent to hell (“the ultimate inner city”) for taking God’s name in vain; an Englishman organizing a transatlantic outing to Disney World for a group of children suffering from grotesquely funny but altogether fatal diseases; the rabbi of Lud, which is not a town but a collection of cemeteries; and above all Ben Flesh, a franchiser extraordinaire crisscrossing the country by car just as the early-1970’s energy crisis strikes and just as multiple sclerosis (Elkin’s own disease) begins to unravel Flesh’s nervous system (and as the members of his ersatz family begin dying of their own blackly humorous maladies). “‘Be hard, Mr. Softee,’” a stiff-upper-lip child (bleeding from all pores as he slowly dies of something called “Lassa fever”) tells the franchiser, whose too too flaccid flesh will resolve itself into not a dew but a parking-lot-size sea of thawing frozen custard. Following typically Elkin logic, Flesh will of course fail as surely as will the electricity that once kept the custard frozen, suffering his cruel disease as Ellerbee, the liquor store owner, must suffer his fate, learning that God created hell only in order to have an audience for his stand-up comedy routines. Elkin’s characters might well sympathize as they endure all God’s bad jokes, for even as they suffer their various defeats and injustices they share this borscht-belt God’s need to tell stories—and the need to have them heard.
Created in the dual image of his two makers—the afflicting God and the postmodern author—Robert/Bob/Bobbo Druff of The MacGuffin may well be Elkin’s most masterful creation. First appointed to his job as the once- inexhaustible federal highway funds began to dry up, kept on not on the basis of merit or even loyalty but merely to fulfill a campaign pledge, this commissioner of streets in an anonymous mid-sized city located somewhere near Elkin’s own St. Louis finds himself, at fifty-eight, “on the downhill side of destiny.” His ungainly physique and declining health (bad heart, collapsed lung, poor circulation, medication-induced sexual impotence) contribute to the general loss of force that, paradoxically, fuels Druff through his forty-hour-long odyssey. A kind of Rodney Dangerfield, Druff cannot quite earn or even buy anyone’s respect. Full of fears about losing his job, his drivers, his mind, and (ironically) even his way over the very streets he nominally rules, Druff feels and is ridiculous. Thinking of himself as the butt of a joke he does not understand, he finds some consolation in chewing coca leaves and, in the typically and brilliantly Elkinish language of his fantasies, “the If-I-Were- King subjunctivication of his life.”
Druff does more than chew coca leaves and fantasize to while away the hours and soothe his battered ego. Druff narrates, turning simple lies, insignificant excuses, and brief daydreams into full-blown narratives replete with interesting characters, developed plots, and a warehouse full of material drawn from the quotidian reality he otherwise finds so unfulfilling. Narrators, however, need narratees. Druff’s wife, Rose Helen, whose simmering “savage resentment” nearly matches Druff’s, refuses to listen to him, even in her sleep. Druff’s drivers are pressed into service, as...
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