Richard Elman Paul West - Essay

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Elman, in his hybrid autofiction about coming of age in Jewish Brooklyn ["Fredi & Shirl & The Kids"], seems from a tender age to have been the captive animal in a series of parental humiliations (intended to make him sink, or swim, out of sight), and yet seems to have survived by breathing water.

Now he enacts upon the effigies of his parents this acerbic, raucous auto-da-fé. "Fredi & Shirl & The Kids" is not without belly-laughs, but for the most part it is exorcism, funny-retaliatory, rather as if a high-camp version of a Jacobean revenge-play were being done in tandem by a midget stand-up comedian and young Werther of Brooklyn. In fact, it's hard to decide where the vengeful quasi-reporting shades into compensatory play, and where one's sympathy has begun to shift into a higher octave of response, one of complicitous levity….

The book alternately barks and percusses, yearns and confesses: a confusing, but far from confused mode that jars and upsets but gets the job done with almost heroic brio. In Elman's own words, he gives us "intimacies as crass as a grab, or a poke." Abandon tropes, all who enter here. (p. 4)

All through this book, the automations of family, clan and class bawl at one another in capital letters, and that lyrical self runs for cover, stays hid. In life, this was the nascence of a tough-minded novelist whose narrative thrust here survives the obliquities of the indeterminate mode and whose delicacy, in just a score of velvet touches, counterpoints the bad mouth machismo that prevails. Autobiography? Novel? For any reader sympathetic enough and flexible enough to wince his way through these seven fables, there's no point in asking. For after you've finished it, the book starts adding up in a different way, da capo, from concerto for family and black sheep to counter-certo for black family and sacrificial lamb. (p. 31)

Paul West, "'Fredi & Shirl & the Kids'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 25, 1972, pp. 4, 31.