Richard Elman Alan Hislop - Essay

Alan Hislop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

While [Fredi & Shirl & The Kids] won't be as popular as Roth's stand-up comedian turn [Portnoy's Complaint] it should have a similar interest for the connoisseur of macabre domesticity.

Elman's novel is an "autobiography in fables," we are told, and has a covering theatrical metaphor. "We played three or four neighborhoods in Brooklyn," it begins, and the last sentence is "Fredi & Shirl & The Kids are one of the longest running hits in show business, but nowadays I am no longer part of their act." When you see life as an "act," it suggests conscious make-believe, that people are actually quite different from what they are trying to make you think they are, or that, at the very least, they are concealing their motives. Yet this book is about a man who hates his family, whom he describes as monsters, and whose whole being is governed by their monstrousness. If it's an act, it's one hell of an act, one that begins to look suspiciously like the real thing.

Fredi & Shirl & The Kids is often very good and certainly worth reading, but it is to some extent off-putting because it inevitably begins to sound like whining. If you are writing a book about how much you have suffered because you hate your parents, who were awful and hated you, if you have no friendships that have been either pleasant or rewarding,… it stops mattering after a while how admirably written your tale of woe is. Richard Elman ends up sounding like a reverse Pollyanna, and his novel seems to me self-defeating.

Alan Hislop, "A Tough Act to Follow," in Book World—The Washington Post (copyright © 1972 The Washington Post), June 25, 1972, p. 6.