Pieces of Soap

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

While not exactly neglected, Stanley Elkin is certainly one of contemporary American literature’s most undeservedly underread writers—something of an underutilized, underexplored national resource. As celebratory, garrulous, and verbally democratic as Walt Whitman, Elkin sounds his postmodern barbaric yawp over the rooftops in a form that is (as Whitman’s once was) utterly new and decidedly American in its rhythms, materials, accents. But unlike Whitman, who worried that the aches and pains of creeping mortality might “filter in my daily songs,” Elkin, no less the cataloguer extraordinaire, leaves nothing out of his song of himself. His essays, like his fiction, evidence an energy more original and potent than even Whitman ever dreamed of, an art acute and angry, a seething comic genius born of the MS (Multiple Sclerosis) that generates Elkin’s MSS (manuscripts) even as it unravels his myelin. His jokes choke you up, like the one about Elkin telling the assistant manager of a San Francisco hotel why the bathtub in one room and the shower stall in another just won’t do, because he is (as his friend William Gass once pointed out) too MS’s up, but the assistant manager does know Elkin’s situation; his own son (here is the punchline) is a paraplegic. So maybe Elkin is right: maybe “The Book of Job is the only book.” Maybe the rest are only variations on that theme, but in Elkin’s case, what variations, and what revenge for all the body’s bad...

(The entire section is 499 words.)