Stanley Elkin Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elkin, Stanley 1930–

Elkin, an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and critic, writes parodies of contemporary absurdity and violence, aptly called (although he dislikes the term) black comedies. Although he is generally highly regarded by critics and his fellow writers, Elkin has not received the popular acclaim that many feel he deserves. Josh Greenfeld praises him as "a bright satirist, a bleak absurdist, and a deadly moralist…. I know of no serious funny writer in this country who can match him." (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols 9-12, rev. ed.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Living End" is] the work of a man who is desperately trying to joke away death….

[Any] little thing that may go wrong with "The Living End" is justified by the marvelously funny gags and sketches that lie in wait around the next corner. And even in the unlikely event that you get through the first 140 pages without cracking a smile, the novel is worth reading alone for its four-page vision of the Day of Judgment….

But what [God] does because He never found His audience needs the effect of the whole book to be appreciated. So please read it. (p. 248)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'The Living End'," in the New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 25, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 5, 1979, pp. 247-48).

Robert Brown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Living End] stretches from the moment of Ellerbee's murder until the end of time and space—doomsday. We follow the fortunes of Ellerbee and one Ladlehaus, an accomplice to the crime, through what there is of eternity. We see the Lord in action, giving and taking away, damning and saving, making the occasional error, explaining the ways of Him to men. I leave the reader to discover the explanation, the "state of the art" for himself, suggesting only that it hinges on those attributes of divinity emphasized when we speak of Him as "Creator."

And readers there must be. Through the years Elkin has garnered all the critical superlatives and deserved them, never more so than with this astonishing book. But he has remained something of a cult figure, and there is no reason for this. It may be said that anyone who reads this book without admiration and delight does not really know how to read at all. (p. 71)

Robert Brown, "Music When Soft Voices Die," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 25, June 18, 1979, pp. 70-1.

William Plummer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stanley Elkin is a "writer's writer," a designation at once happy and sad. Sad because his older titles are not to be found at the nearest paperback store but, with luck, in the used book stalls. His is the sort of name publishing houses like to trot out when accused of Harold Robbins or Robin Moore.

Elkin does close-order dialogue as snappy as Heller or Roth, and his eye for contemporary detail is as sharp as Barthelme's. So what's amiss? Let him tell you. Like many modern writers, he's forever talking about what he's up to through the guise of his narrator…. (p. 33)

["The Bailbondsman"] is one of the great works in the language—right up there, perhaps, with [Faulkner's] "The Bear" and [Melville's] "Bartleby." But you must grant Elkin his premises. He has no interest in "the arduous, numbing connections" in plot or even structure. He's not anti-story,… but rather has an insatiable "sweet tooth for instance," which he treats with gags, interpolated tales, catalogues and assorted set pieces. Like Tristram Shandy, he believes in progress by digression.

Two more discomforting things. Character leaves him cold: he is exclusively "distracted by personality," the outré—no middle-range intensities for him. Thus, he is always on; there are no readerly reliefs, no rest stops on his highway. (pp. 33-4)

Elkin's new collection of novellas, The Living End, will probably disappoint his faithful; it's slighter, less fiercely written than Searches & Seizures. The lead story, "The Conventional Wisdom," is of interest, however,...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I think you will find Stanley Elkin's The Living End either hilariously funny or not funny at all. I managed to hover between the two extremes, finding some of the ripostes very good (a man in hell says, "It's too hot to harbor a grudge") but the main story-line labored and the humor often over-extended. The Living End is divided into three parts to parallel the sections of The Divine Comedy, but there the resemblance ceases. Some of the dialogue is Beckett-like, some of the inventions upon the theme of death and life after death are reminiscent of Mark Twain's later fooling around with such ideas, but mostly the humor is black and bitter. The writing is wonderful, the language rich and varied, and the Jewish dialect accorded Joseph and Mary successful, at least at the start. (p. R13)

Doris Grumbach, "A Season Redolent of Worthy Fiction," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. XVIII, No. 16, June 25, 1979, pp. R12-R13.∗

Henry Robbins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Living End is Stanley Elkin's comic fable of Heaven, Hell and the Last Days, a small book big in every way but length. And I should say at once that this "triptych" … is the work of a master, a story eloquent in its gestures and amazing for the ease with which it moves from a liquor store hold-up in Minneapolis to the "wall-to-wall Wall" of damnation, from Heaven as a "theme park" to Hell as "the ultimate inner city." Half farce, half morality play, The Living End puts God himself on trial, the Lord faced off against the damned who in their countless number equal Everyman. Quite possibly only Stanley Elkin possesses the exact blend of irreverence and care, of hard-core realism and fabulous invention, to have pulled this off.

Elkin knows that clichés are the substance of our lives, the coinage of human intercourse, the ways and means that hold our messy selves and sprawling nation intact. To exploit their vigor and set them forth with unexpected force has been the basis of his success as a novelist; no writer has maneuvered life's shoddy stock-in-trade into more brilliantly funny forms….

[Desperation] relieved by raucous humor slips into The Living End, where Elkin takes on the ultimate cliché, death and the preposterous protocol of Hereafter. (p. F1)

There is a kind of vulgate glory to Stanley Elkin's prose, and much of the power of The Living End depends on how things are worded. Elkin is the magister ludi of American vernacular, and for sheer stylistic brilliance no other writer can top him. The American novelist he most resembles is Nathanael West, but whereas West allowed us to feel superior to life's lunacy through savage irony, Elkin refuses us this distance, this illusion. And unlike others of his generation, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis for example, Elkin does not identify with the laughter of the gods, he does not dissociate himself from the human spectacle by taking out a franchise on the cosmic joke. Hard and unyielding as his comic vision becomes, Elkin's laughter is remission and reprieve, a gesture of willingness to join the human mess, to side with the damned, to laugh in momentary grace at whatever makes life Hell. (p. F4)

Henry Robbins, "To Hell and Back with Stanley Elkin," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), July 1, 1979, pp. F1, F4.

Geoffrey Stokes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a novelist, Stanley Elkin has often been too smart for his own good. The outrageous vision … that animates his stories—among the most tightly brilliant published by a contemporary author—has tended to become flaccid over the long haul of a novel. The Dick Gibson Show (1971) offered some hope that Elkin had become able to harness his enormous gifts and deal with the demands of form. But in retrospect, that novel's success seems to have more to do with the accidental confluence of Dick Gibson's performing style and his creator's weakness for spectacular schtickery than with Elkin's learning to provide us with something beyond mere astonishment. That, at least, was the judgment forced on even sympathetic readers by his more recent long work, especially The Franchiser (1976), a lumpily indigestible porridge of small boffos and Big Thoughts. Thus the triumph that is Elkin's The Living End comes at once as a stunning surprise and as a temptation to say we knew he could do it all the time.

In The Living End Elkin has finally found a subject worthy of him. No more does he diddle with the surrogates, no more leave us wiping the laughter from our eyes and wondering if we really care quite all that much about One-Hour Martinizing. This time, Elkin goes directly for the big one: God, He Who, etc.…

This is, of course, vintage Elkin; everyone is a standup comic. But precisely because it's God talking, the question of why He does what He does is genuinely important—especially when it turns out that Elkin is ultimately addressing the obligations of all creators. And suddenly—when the eternally-disfigured Christ learns that his suffering occurred solely because God thought it would make a better story—the laughter stops, and the very funny, very serious Elkin goes deeper than he's ever gone before. The Living End makes it at once possible to forgive God, and unnecessary to forgive Stanley Elkin.

Geoffrey Stokes, "Short Circuits," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), Vol. 24, No. 34, August 20, 1979, p. 82.