Stanley May Elkin

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William Grimes (obituary date 2 June 1995)

SOURCE: An obituary in The New York Times, June 2, 1995, p. A25.

[In the following, Grimes reviews Elkin's life and career, noting that "his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world."]

Stanley Elkin, a stylistic virtuoso whose novels, short stories and novellas were at once lyrical, bleak and fantastic, died on Wednesday at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was 65 and lived in University City, Mo.

The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Molly.

Mr. Elkin, the author of Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, Searches and Seizures, The Magic Kingdom and The Franchiser, was often described as a clear-eyed realist—even though his work veered toward parody and black humor—and his highly wrought sentences formed a dense, self-contained linguistic world. Although he paid scant attention to plot and incident, his deliberately preposterous fictional situations led him to explore the pain at the heart of the human condition. His long struggle with multiple sclerosis only deepened his preoccupation with suffering and mortality. Reviewing Mr. Elkin's second novel, A Bad Man (1967), in The New York Times Book Review, the critic Josh Greenfeld called the author "at once a bright satirist, a bleak absurdist and a deadly moralist."

Mr. Elkin was born in Brooklyn, where his father was a costume-jewelry salesman, and grew up on the South Shore of Chicago, where he began writing stories in grade school. After graduating from South Shore High School, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1952, a master's degree in 1953 and a doctorate in 1961. His dissertation dealt with religious themes and symbols in William Faulkner's novels. From 1955 to 1957 he was in the Army.

As an undergraduate, Mr. Elkin contributed stories to Illini Writers, the university's literary magazine, and acted in radio dramas on the college station.

In 1960, he became an instructor in the English department of Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught writing for the rest of his life. He became a full professor in 1969 and was named Merle King Professor of Modern Letters in 1983.

His first novel, Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), showed Mr. Elkin's penchant for concocting absurd situations with tragic potential. It thrust an updated version of Samuel Johnson's biographer into the modern world. Fearful of death, haunted by a sense of his own mediocrity, he surrounds himself with celebrities, including a professional wrestler nicknamed the Grim Reaper, and tries to organize a club of famous people.

Mr. Elkin won widespread critical praise for his second book, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966), a collection of nine stories, most of them sharply realized character sketches. Critics also admired Searches and Seizures (1973), a collection of three novellas, one of which, "The Bailbondsman," was made into the 1976 film Alex and the Gypsy.

His work often dealt in darkly comic fashion with the alienating effects of American mass culture and the mysterious power of cliche. The hero of The Dick Gibson Show (1971), a radio disk jockey who roams from station to station, is everywhere and nowhere. The Franchiser (1976) tells the exploits of Ben Flesh, who is so successful in creating a nationwide empire of franchises that by the end of the novel he cannot tell one state from another.

Flesh's enthusiasm for his products inspired one of Mr. Elkin's most memorable set-pieces:

The colors of those ice creams! Chocolate like new shoes. Cherry like...

(This entire section contains 3663 words.)

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bright fingernail polish. We do a Maple Ripple it looks like finegrained wood, Peach like a light coming through a lampshade. You should see that stuff—the ice-cream paints bright as posters, fifty Day-Glo colors. You scoop the stuff up you feel like Jackson Pollock.

In 1972, Mr. Elkin, who had already survived a heart attack, was found to have multiple sclerosis, an illness that, over time, restricted him to a wheelchair and forced him to abandon the pen for the computer. It also provided him a metaphor that runs through much of his subsequent work. The Magic Kingdom (1985), for example, tells the story of a group of terminally ill children who are taken on an outing to Disneyland.

His other novels include The Living End (1979), The Rabbi of Lud (1987) and The MacGuffin (1993). His novel George Mills (1982), about 40 generations of blue-collar workers named George Mills, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Several of his essays were collected in Pieces of Soap (1992), and in 1992 he published a collection of three novellas, Van Gogh's Room at Arles.

At the time of his death he had just completed a novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, which Hyperion is to publish in September.

In addition to his daughter, of Washington, he is survived by his wife, Joan; two sons, Philip, of Creve Coeur, Mo., and Bernard, of St. Louis; a sister, Diane Brandwein of Chicago, and two grandchildren.

Marie Arana-Ward (essay date 5 June 1995)

SOURCE: "Stanley Elkin, Voice of the Little Guy," in The Washington Post, June 5, 1995, p. 2, sec. 2.

[Arana-Ward is a staff-writer at The Washington Post and former editor of some of Elkin's books. In the following tribute, she discusses Elkin's personality and his desire for a broad readership, one that included more than just other writers.]

The last time I saw Stanley Elkin, we were speeding through a late Manhattan night in a van. I was in the front next to the driver, looking out at the street ruts winter had left behind. Stanley was in an open space in the back, strapped into his wheelchair, which was, in turn, yoked to the floor. It was 1992, and we were returning from the National Book Award ceremony in a funk. It was the third time he had been nominated for the award, and the third time he had lost.

Bumping along in the dark, trussed up in his tux with a runner-up medal festooning his neck, Stanley was inconsolable. As the road got worse, I could hear his hands thwack against the armrests and his head flop from side to side. Soon he was bobbing like a balloon in the wind. "Goddamn New York potholes!" he finally roared, half in a rage, and half with diabolical glee. It was vintage Elkin—a moment that could have been pulled from the life of Bobbo Druff, city commissioner of streets and luckless hero of The MacGuffin, his novel that hadn't taken the prize that year.

Stanley Elkin died last week in St. Louis of complications arising from his 23-year struggle with multiple sclerosis. He was 65. Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University and easily one of the greatest virtuosos of the American language, he produced 10 novels, two volumes of novellas, one volume of short stories, one collection of essays, and three published scripts.

I was Elkin's editor for a time—an oxymoron if ever there was one, for Elkin's books needed no editing. They sprang full-blown from the man's head, magical riffs of irreverent wisdom. Their heroes, like him, are the powerless but shrewd, setting out into an unjust world like Brooklyn bred Don Quixotes: off to tilt at windmills with little more than a mouthful of fast talk.

For all his yearning to be known by the greater American public, however, Elkin remained a writer's writer: an artist who was envied and exalted by the literary world, but whose works went undiscovered by the common man they strived to depict. Cynthia Ozick said of him, "Stanley Elkin is no ordinary genius of language, laughter, and the irresistible American idiom; he is an ingenious genius—an inimitable sword-swallower, fire-eater, and three-ring circus of fecund wit."

Elkin was born in the Bronx and grew up in Chicago. He was the eldest son of a costume jewelry salesman, a hereditary fact that predisposed him (he always said) to looking at words as if they were glittering gewgaws ready for the stringing.

After graduating from South Shore High School in Chicago, he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a BA (1952), a master's (1953) and a doctorate (1961) in English. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1957. He was a visiting professor at many colleges, including Yale, Smith and the University of Iowa, but for most of his career he was an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught writing until his death last Wednesday.

Although he could be seriously funny, much of Elkin's work is about the angst at the heart of American mass culture. Boswell, his first novel (1964), tells the tale of a modern-day biographer whose gnawing sense of his own mortality and mediocrity leads him to surround himself with bizarre people he perceives to be famous. His second book, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966), is a much-loved collection of nine short stories—sketches of an array of oddballs—that Harvard's Helen Vendler has likened to a dazzling show of "naked bravado and ostentation."

George Mills (1982), the novel that won Elkin the National Book Critics Circle Award, is about 40 generations of workers who are all named George Mills and who are all trapped in their blue-collar jobs. In The Magic Kingdom (1985), a group of terminally ill children is taken to explore the surreal landscape of Disney World. In The MacGuffin (1991), the aforementioned Bobbo Druff combs city streets in an existential daze and wonders when the traffic and his life got so far out of control. Among Elkin's most recent works are Pieces of Soap (essays, 1992), Van Gogh's Room at Arles (novellas, 1993) and the forthcoming novel Mrs. Ted Bliss, to be published in September.

When Elkin was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award in 1994 and didn't win, his daughter Molly (one of three children Elkin had with his wife Joan), went to the ceremony in his place. "My father couldn't be here," she told the audience, "because of his debilitating disease…. Oh, I don't mean that one," she added when a knowing hush descended on the room. "I mean his writer's ego." He couldn't bear the torment of watching someone else get the glory again.

And yet, it was that not-getting-the-glory-thing that sharpened his wit and fed his imagination. Here Stanley Elkin ultimately found a victory: He became America's past master at taking defeat and weaving it, word by word, onto filaments of gold. "As long as you've got your health," he wrote, "you've got your naivete. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that's what led me toward revenge—a writer's revenge anyway, the revenge, I mean, of style."

Geoffrey Wolff (essay date 17 September 1995)

SOURCE: "Remembering Stanley Elkin, Master of Excess," in The New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, p. 43.

[Wolff, an American novelist, biographer, essayist, and educator, was a close friend of Elkin's. In the following reminiscence, he describes the author's "extravagant" literary style and the irreverence, tenacity, and "breath-stopping candor" with which he lived his life.]

It wasn't enough to have written many singular novels and collections of stories and novellas and essays, every piece of work surprising. It didn't suffice to be Merle King Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. It was too paltry a blessing to be eligible for Social Security payments, too miserly a bounty to be celebrated by fellow writers for the richest, most supple and idiomatic and muscular and elegantly cadenced American sentences since William Faulkner's. Stanley Elkin, all appetite, wanted more. He confessed his longing to be a "crossover" artist, Art Tatum goes platinum, to be read by everybody, even by—perhaps especially by—people who don't read.

The first words of Stanley Elkin's first novel, Boswell: "Everybody dies, everybody. Sure." He didn't ask for much, just to be rich and famous and to live forever free of pain. As to rich and famous, who cares? He woke up from the free-of-pain dream a long time ago, so it seemed little enough to ask to live forever.

He died on May 31, but not before finishing and editing a new novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss. When he'd say he wanted to live forever, he meant the part that wrote, talked, listened, ate, loved and laughed. He was brutally clear about this: He was contemptuously indifferent to the part in libraries—reputation, classical standing. He wanted the fun now.

The first time I met Elkin he called me a liar. I could make believe that coming from a fiction writer this was a compliment, but it wasn't. This was 20-some years ago, at a little party given by Robert and Pilar Coover at Princeton, where Elkin was about to read aloud from his work. I had just introduced myself and told him I cherished his fiction. He stared at me, shook his head and said. "You sure got a funny way of showing it." I was ashamed to be taken for a suck-up, but mostly I was bewildered. What could he be talking about? Maybe he was suffering the before-reading jitters, maybe he didn't mean to insult me; but he seemed cool as cool could be, and soon I learned that he always meant what he said.

Bob Coover, overhearing our exchange, asked, "Stanley, do you know Geoffrey Wolff?"

"Oh, do I know this guy? I know him, but Geoffrey Wolff he ain't."

"Well, I am," I said.

"I know who you are," he said.

Who he knew I was was a bearded novelist, a young has-been who lived in Greenwich Village and had somewhere hedged his review of an Elkin novel with reservations. I could have stood being confused with Vladimir Nabokov or Edmund Wilson. But my doppelgänger was washed up the afternoon of the morning the poor mutt was said to have promise. From the certitude that I was this bozo, Stanley would not budge. All that night, even during his reading, he gave me the fisheye.

And what a reading! The bravura punch of it, the quicksilver riffs and unreserved investment in his characters gave me a welcome kick in the pants, a reminder of why I'd ever thought it was a good idea to read and write. Elkin did all the voices: his greatest tribute to a writer he liked—and he liked many—was to say that a writer gave to all his characters the best lines. Later, when his body wore out, he lost his pipes for reading aloud, but he never lost his pitch-perfect timing, his all-stops-out indulgence of his characters' music; he lavished attention on them as they lavished attention on themselves. Elkin's characters were hot for themselves, in perpetual estrus, as passionately single-minded (but sane) as the she-bear who sexually victimizes the lordly master of his game preserve in The Making of Ashenden. I write "she-bear." Elkin wrote:

"A black patent-leather snout like an electric socket."

"A long and even elegant run of purplish tongue, mottled, seasoned as rare delicatessen meat, that lolled idiotic inches out of the side of its mouth."

"A commitment of claw … the color of the heads of hammers."

"A low black piping of lip."

"A shallow mouth, logjam of teeth."

You know, like a bear? Reviewers (and some book editors) beat up on Stanley for his extravagance: too much of a muchness, don't you know, over-egging the custard. This is like criticizing the Matterhorn for being too pointy, the Pacific for being too damned wet. In The Paris Review, Stanley told his interviewer, Thomas LeClair, that one of his editors kept insisting, "Stanley, less is more." "I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess because I don't believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough."

Another criticism, offered as an explanation when Stanley complained (and Stanley was a virtuoso of complaint, a great griever) of his narrow audience: He demanded too much of his readers, his conceits flew too fast, too far past the pull of gravity, beyond where common folk could follow. Hearing The Bailbondsman that night at Princeton I heard a wizard aria, a display of verbal pyrotechnics in which Phoenician grave robbers break into a Pharaoh's tomb and find a mummy: "Its open eyes seem not blind so much as distracted, as though its pupils, large and black as handballs, witness something going on extraordinarily high in the sky. Its sweet lips look as if they taste their own goldenness." Stanley insisted, was right to insist: That's how this mummy would look to you, too, if only you'd focus.

After his reading, down the table at a Chinese restaurant, he shook his head at me. "Pretty cute," he said. "Geoffrey Wolff—now there's a likely handle!" Stanley's stubbornness, his tenacious commitment to his vision of human situations, was awesome.

By the time he'd done with me, spun his version of who I was, elaborated the tangled skein of my motives, I longed to be the devious character he supposed me to be. Once I'd surrendered unconditionally to his version of me, he forgave me for changing my name and sort of forgave me for the ugly review I never wrote. We became friends, I loved him.

In his masterpiece, The Living End, he out-Jobs Job, takes on heaven and hell, Lucifer and the Almighty. He doesn't deny God, but he finds Him disappointing, petty, distanced from His creations. Stanley was personal, always, finding in each person everything that was available, teasing it out, improvising on it. He made of the human beings he encountered what God would have made had God had the time and imagination. When I spent time with Stanley I felt enhanced, transfigured into my possibilities.

I once taught a student who had grown up near Stanley's house in St. Louis, where she'd been a friend of Stanley's daughter. She felt intimidated by her friend's dad, the way kids will. One afternoon, visiting Molly, she found herself alone in the house with Mr. Elkin, downstairs in the living room, where he couldn't see her. He was in an adjoining room alone with someone's baby. The door was open; he was talking: "How's the weather down there?" "Da-Da? Oooh, how advanced guard of you!" "While you're down, shine my shoes." "Here's lookin' at you, kiddo." "Just kidding." "Gee baby, ain't I good to you?" I'm pretty certain that hanging out with a drooler incapable of a complete sentence was not Stanley's idea of heaven (his idea of heaven was a place where "there are actually halos—like golden quoits, or, in the distance, the lovely green pastures, delicious as fairway"), but by this time he was a prisoner of his body, which was a prisoner of multiple sclerosis, and since he wasn't going anywhere on his legs, he might as well sightsee Baby World for all it was worth.

About his disease he was everything anyone could admire: forthright, offended, curious, mordant. After he needed a cane and leg brace, but before he got sentenced to a wheel-chair, he would go from standing to sitting in a kind of backward swoon, terrifying to watch, an audacious act of faith. During a cocktail party at Bread Loaf, he had just managed this feat when a jogger came into the room, sweating theatrically, stretching, cooling down, rubbing his neck.

"Oh boy, oh boy," he said, wincing, looking down at Stanley. "My neck is killing me! Running on these mountain roads…."

"I wept," Stanley said, "because I had no feet, until I met a chap had no shoes."

Stanley was capable of breath-stopping candor. He didn't know how to make nice, was without tact. A guest for dinner came late to the Elkins' house one night years ago. This good friend arrived breathless, emotionally shaken. He brought bad news about a writer celebrated for his gassy homilies on the obligation of the artist to promote morality. This bloviating sermonizer had that evening passed along word that he was afflicted with a killing disease. Guests at the table gasped, put on sad faces. Stanley didn't.

A man who could translate God into a petty bureaucrat, a fine-print artist of an Almighty, was not one to shrink from a violation of appropriate reverence. "God reads," Stanley said.

I hope so.

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