Stanley May Elkin

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Meg Wolitzer (review date 21 March 1993)

SOURCE: "The Roaring Anger of Not Being in Charge," in The New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1993, pp. 3, 19.

[Wolitzer is an American novelist, critic, and author of children's literature. In the following review of Van Gogh's Room at Arles, she praises Elkin's prose style, humor, and compassionate understanding of his characters.]

The cover of Stanley Elkin's 1985 novel read Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom, which brings to mind titles like Stephen King's "It" and Jacqueline Susann's Once Is Not Enough. What was Mr. Elkin's book doing in that particular pantheon? His work had never achieved blockbuster status, or been turned into a mini-series or movie. Mr. Elkin is a star of a very different literary universe, where well-constructed and difficult books are revered, and where a dream double bill at the local multiplex would be "Donald Barthelme's Snow White" and "Samuel Beckett's Malone Dies." There was nothing big and glitzy about Mr. Elkin's darkly comic novel, which concerned a group of terminally ill children sent on a whirlwind Make-a-Wish Foundation-style trip to Disney World.

Now, eight years later, Mr. Elkin has written Van Gogh's Room at Arles, a subtle, complicated, often astonishing collection of three novellas. This time around, it almost makes sense to think of the book as "Stanley Elkin's Van Gogh's Room at Arles," not because it feels showy and sensational, but simply because the collection is so singular to its author, and the room in its title seems to belong as much to Stanley Elkin as to Vincent van Gogh.

The first novella, an exercise in helplessness and rage called "Her Sense of Timing," takes place far from Arles. Jack Schiff, a professor of political geography at a university in St. Louis, is a victim of a debilitating disease that has left him a virtual invalid, largely dependent on the care of Claire, his wife of 36 years: "Even in restaurants Claire paid the check, figured the tip, signed the credit-card slip. His disease had turned him into some sort of helpless, old-timey widow, some nice, pre-lib, immigrant lady."

At the beginning of the novella, Claire has just announced that she's leaving Jack, and she proceeds to pack her suitcases and scram. What follows is a maddening and riotous account of Schiff's struggle to reconcile himself to being on his own for the first time in years. Not only has Claire left him in the lurch, but, even more horrible, she's departed on the eve of Schiff's annual party for his graduate students, a big, messy affair that Claire has always overseen. What will he do? How will he cope?

(This entire section contains 8765 words.)

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Schiff (and, cleverly, Mr. Elkin) turns to one of those companies that install emergency aid devices in the homes of the elderly or disabled. The S.O.S. Corporation swiftly dispatches a team to Schiff's house, and his relationship with its members, Bill and Jenny, becomes the source of much broad, dark humor. He's forced to rely on them for every little thing, and when it's time for him to pay for their services, he enlists them to go rummaging around the house for his checkbook:

"I think it may be in one of the drawers in the tchtchk."

"Say what?"

"The cabinet in the hall. We call it the tchtchk."

"That's a new one on me. You ever hear that, Jen? The choo-choo? Heck, I can't even pronounce it. How do you say that again?"

"Tchtchk. It doesn't mean anything."

"Just a pet name, eh? From your salad days…. It's just something you ought to bear in mind…. Well, that you had salad days…. That's why the good Lord usually lets us hold on to our memories…. So we can remember the times before our wives had to carry us around piggyback."

The word "tchtchk" summons up the private shorthand used by longtime couples, the secret language of marriage that usually can't be shared with anyone else, or even fully translated. Later in the novella, when Jenny casually refers to the "tchtchk" as though it were a common word, the moment is surprisingly affecting. Schiff starts to grow attracted to her, to come alive for the first time in years. Although he's in a wheelchair, in a position of potentially humiliating vulnerability, this "pre-lib, immigrant lady" slowly gains back a good measure of his American maleness and bravado.

That night at the graduate students' bash, which takes place despite his protests, Schiff finds himself attracted once again, this time to a student named Molly Kohm: "He was gathering courage, putting together a sort of schoolkid's nerve he hadn't used in years…. Yes, Schiff thought, I'm going to touch her. I'm going to reach over and hold her."

Mr. Elkin, who teaches at Washington University in St. Louis and who has written eloquently elsewhere about his own multiple sclerosis, here explores the ramifications of degenerative illness, from the purely physical difficulties of the smallest everyday actions to the roaring anger and frustration of not being in charge. The novella gamely confronts weakness and strength, and ends with—no surprise—a really good punch line.

Mr. Elkin's second novella, "Town Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manqué: 'How Royals Found Me "Unsuitable" to Marry Their Larry,'" brings us a bit closer to France, at least in terms of geography. This is a tour de force about a woman who falls in love with Lawrence, Crown Patriciate of England. Coming as it does on the heels of a major British monarchy shakedown, the novella is timely and funny, although inhabiting the mind of Louise, the commoner who briefly nabs Prince Larry, is at least as arduous as occupying the body of Prof. Jack Schiff. Louise rambles on, relating choice tidbits to a supermarket tabloid, Town Crier, that has bought the rights to her story. As Mr. Elkin portrays her, Louise is a kind of breezy, souped-up Fergie-Diana hybrid, an ordinary woman plucked from the normal world and brought into the palace nuthouse. "Town Crier Exclusive" is a witty piece of work, studded with bits that lampoon the royal family. Some are based on actual events, such as a reference to an intruder sneaking into the Queen's bedroom to watch her sleep, while others are pure Elkin, as in a scene in which the Prince's relatives discuss the upcoming wedding with the prospective bride and groom:

"Would it be all right, do you think, if we wore, well, jeans, to the wedding?"

"Jeans? To a Royal Wedding? In Westminster Abbey?"

"I told you he wouldn't go for it."

"Well, not jeans, or not jeans exactly. Regular morning coats and top hats for the boys, actually."

"And gorgeous gowns for the ladies. With these ravishing big hats and really swell veils."

"Just cut like jeans."

"From stone-washed denim."

"Oh, it would be such fun! The Sloane Rangers would just die!"

"Town Crier Exclusive" is often truly funny, but at times it's a little too thickly packed with ludicrous humor and circumlocutious side trips, and it does go on somewhat longer than it should. After a while, the clutter of Mr. Elkin's version of royal life becomes a little too much to take and, like Fergie and Diana bolting the palace gates for good, the reader finally wants out.

Mr. Elkin's strongest stuff is saved for last. The title novella concerns a professor named Miller who's won a foundation grant and been sent to an academic retreat in Arles, where, by a stroke of luck, he's assigned to van Gogh's bedroom. All the accouterments of the great man, depicted in his famous painting of the room—the basin, the pitcher, the bed—have been left for the less-than-great man to use. Miller is out of his element in every way; the retreat in Arles is a think-tank hideaway for intellectuals from all the great institutions: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Booth Tarkington Community College. Booth Tarkington Community College? That's where Mr. Elkin's protagonist teaches.

All around him, other institute fellows proudly describe their work: "Myra Gynt, a composer from the University of Michigan, explained how it was her intention to set the lyrics of various Broadway showstoppers to the more formal music of the 12-tone scale." "Farrell Jones held forth regarding his conclusions about the parallels between the mood swings of manic-depressives and babies." A man in a wheelchair is in Arles to research a project on his theory that "world-class cities were almost never found on mountaintops." (Although he's not named, we can guess that he is meant to be Jack Schiff of "Her Sense of Timing," whose reappearance is a self-referential wink to the reader.)

Finally, when it's Miller's turn in this game of rarefied show and tell, he fails miserably. He's been invited by the foundation to work on a study of the image of the community college among academics from prestigious universities, and at the end of his description of this vague, bogus-sounding project, Miller faints dead away.

A doctor is summoned who turns out to be Félix Rey, the great-great-grandson of van Gogh's own doctor, Félix Rey. The young Rey is the spitting image of his ancestor, right down to the tips of his reddened ears. Over the course of Miller's stay in Arles, he becomes aware of other members of the Club of the Portraits of Descendants of People Painted by Vincent van Gogh. These characters haunt the edges of the novella like apparitions, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of parts of Joyce's story "The Dead," invoking the greatness of what's past and the mundane but moving humanness of what's still living.

In this novella, Mr. Elkin muscularly demonstrates his talents through his easy transitions from shtick to art and back again. He has great fun listing the catalogue of intellectuals, getting their names just right: "Samuels Kleist, a vernacular architect in his late 60's, Yalom and Inga Basset, pop psychiatrists…. Jesus Hans, statistics adviser to the third world." Mr. Elkin can also be highly poetic, a kind of borscht belt visionary who reaches for a real epiphany near the close of the novella:

Miller decided to turn off the light. Low as the light had been, his eyes still had to adjust to this new black dark. What he saw now, the almost colorless configuration of shapes and masses, made a different and still stranger picture and, as dawn came and the light turned milky, and then, as the sun rose higher and the room experienced its gradual yellowing, it seemed almost to go through a process of queer simultaneity, of aging and renewal at once.

This time, Mr. Elkin doesn't go out with a punch line, but the humor lingers even as the novella closes with a long passage of charged and beautiful writing.

The three novellas in Van Gogh's Room at Arles are linked through shared themes and obsessions, with Mr. Elkin the ironic geographer lurking in a corner, overseeing the landscapes of his characters' lives. Mostly, though, the novellas are connected by Stanley Elkin's distinctive and unflagging voice. In his new book, that voice is big enough to fill the whole room.

Francine Prose (review date July 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Van Gogh's Room at Arles, in The Yale Review, Vol. 81, No. 3, July, 1993, pp. 128-30.

[Prose is an American novelist, short story writer, critic, and educator. In the following excerpt, she argues that Van Gogh's Room at Arles is Elkin's best book.]

Stanley Elkin writes fiction that veers into manic lyricism while maintaining—Elkin insists on it—absolute precision of language. By now readers have learned to so value the rhythms of Elkin's sentences that they may find themselves moving their lips when they read, just as they were always taught not to. Van Gogh's Room at Arles, a trio of novellas, has passages of description so classically and recognizably Elkin that one can imagine some poor (or lucky) student in the future asked, on a multiple-choice exam, to identify where this pizza comes from:

The tops of the pizza boxes had been torn from their bottoms, and everywhere, teetering on the arm of the sofa, on the coffee table, left on a seat cushion, on a stereo speaker, in the makeshift dishes, the smeared, greasy, bronzed mix-and-match of the cardboard china, lay pieces of cold, uneaten pizza like long slices of abstract painting, their fats congealing, fissures opening in their cooling yellow cheeses; burst bubbles of painterly cholesterol, chips of pepperoni raised on them like rusty scabs.

It's this exactness (and humor) that allows Elkin's work to go so far out on the edge, to evoke the most extreme emotions—rage, shame, lust, grief, fear—and never for a moment veer out of control. Elkin and his characters share a dogged determination to see things as they truly are, without piety or illusion, and a distrust of cant and sloppiness, especially where language is concerned. When a graduate student warns Schiff, a crippled professor, about the "devastating effects" that "negative energy" can have on someone "in his condition," Schiff replies, "'Let me tell you something, Ms. Kohm…. Unless they're referring to alternative fuels or to how they're feeling. I'm always a little suspicious of, and embarrassed for, people who use terms like energy.'"

The three novellas remind one again of Walter Benjamin's interest in who's staying home, who's traveling, what kinds of tales they tell [earlier in the review, Prose refers to German critic and essayist Walter Benjamin who, in "his essay on Leskov,… makes—and quickly blurs—a distinction between two kinds of storytellers: the one who stays home and knows the local history, the other who leaves and comes back with a tale to tell. One is 'embodied in the resident tiller of the soil, and the other in the trading seaman'"]. The title novella is very much about going someplace else: to the South of France, where a community-college professor on a foundation grant is given Vincent Van Gogh's last bedroom—and considerably more. In "Town Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manqué: 'How Royals Found Me "Unsuitable" to Marry Their Larry'" the narrator, a young woman briefly engaged to the heir to the British throne, embarks on a dizzy, madcap whirl before slamming straight into a wall. And the hero of "Her Sense of Timing" feels lucky just to make it up the stairs; the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Schiff, a professor of political geography, discovers that his wife has left him on the eve of their annual graduate-student party.

The protagonists of these short novels are more sinned against than sinning, and in a way they have it worse than Job: their comforters are also their tormentors. The same students who offer to take on every arduous detail of hosting Schiff's party wreck his house in a Bacchanalian orgy of nerdiness and "awful graduate-student food."

Stanley Elkin has always been fascinated by the details of what people do, by work, jobs, hustles, hucksters, and fast talkers. Two of these three stories concern academics, but while Elkin gleefully flails away at the follies of academia, these characters have more important things to do. The hard work of simply surviving and staying sane are their day jobs, as it were, and occupy the major part of their time and attention. (Though the characters are mostly middle-class—and in the second novella, royalty—there's nothing safe or bourgeois about Elkin's writing; you feel he'll say anything.)

One hopes many readers (that is, besides other writers) will appreciate the sheer bravery, the riskiness and difficulty of what Stanley Elkin attempts and succeeds at. Writers will no doubt find themselves considering how tricky it must have been to describe the effort required for Schiff to perform ordinary physical acts: what a challenge for an author to capture that effort without the faintest tinny echo of falseness or sentimentality. (Stanley Elkin has often been drawn to material—for example, the terminally ill children in The Magic Kingdom—that would be awful, hopeless, written by anyone else.) What it costs Schiff to get from his bed to the bathroom is immensely moving and frightening and at the same time horrifically funny. One thinks of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, dragging himself from place to place; like Beckett, Elkin is perpetually weighing damage against resilience. So Professor Schiff gives a play-by-play description of his travails to an imaginary audience of fans:

Technically I'm still in the bathroom, though the wheels of the walker, and even its two hind legs, are over the threshold and out in the hall, heading south, my right foot on Steppp, my left, huff puff huff puff, on Draaaag. And I'm in the hall too, now, in the hall and making my adjustments, shifting my trajectory, handling the walker, raising it up off the carpet and swinging it east, bringing my body into alignment with the walker. All right. All right. Just about ready to move on. From here it's a fairly clean shot east to the bedroom, where I'll have to hang a north, then jockey from there northeast to the bed. You know something, folks? I'm not saying it's a blessing or promising rose gardens, merely mentioning in huff-puff passing that this disease could have done worse than chosen to be trapped in the body of a political geographer.

Van Gogh's Room at Arles is, think, Stanley Elkin's best book. It's certainly the easiest to read—it moves right along, it asks nothing. The title novella is so well constructed that when you realize (or think you realize) where it is going, you feel a shiver at the back of your neck that intensifies when you see what turn the book is actually taking: toward a sudden, illuminating glimpse of the accidental, visionary, and (for lack of a better word) religious nature of art. What Stanley Elkin has always done well he does even better here. No one is more deft at pacing a scene for comic timing, and these fictions include scenes (a foundation social event at which grantees describe their silly projects, Schiff's monster of a party) which build to stunning heights of comic humiliation. Throughout these novellas, everything builds; their cumulative power is astounding.

Maureen Howard (review date 3 September 1995)

SOURCE: "Sunset Over Miami," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, pp. 1, 8.

[Howard is American novelist, essayist, critic, and autobiographer whose works include the novels Expensive Habits (1986) and Natural History (1992). In the following highly positive review of Mrs. Ted Bliss, she compares Elkin to Mark Twain and Herman Melville, describing him as "an American writer of the first rank."]

Stanley Elkin died this past spring. He will remain an American writer of the first rank. I'm taking the long view that includes Melville and Twain—by all means Twain—not the myopic squint at who is to be taken seriously this season. Elkin, the funny man, deserves a large and lasting audience—readers who will be rewarded when they buy a ticket to the Elkin Vaudeville Show and find that they also hold a season subscription to the symphony.

Mrs. Ted Bliss, Elkin's last novel, stands as a brilliant end to the long career of a writer who saw the pitch of every assaulting sentence, the shape of each paragraph, as vital to the moment of his story.

The energy and imagination that Elkin invests in Mrs. Bliss, the most ordinary of women in ordinary circumstances—a Jewish widow living in a Miami condominium, a fixture in the life of family and friends—is extraordinary. A woman as central character is new territory for Elkin, who celebrated the ordinary guy in his stories and novels of hopeful hucksters and flamboyant losers who work the salesrooms of tawdry-yet-wondrous American life.

Elkin's franchiser, bail bondsman and talk-show host are defined by their professions, as Dickens often defined and limited his memorable comic figures—a Mr. Gradgrind, a Uriah Heep. So what is Elkin doing with this aging beauty who hasn't worked since she was a girl helping customers zip and button in a dress shop? With this woman addicted to cleaning house and meticulously caring for herself (two showers a day, lotion, talc)? With this harmless plush dinosaur in a pre-feminist landscape? He is working over the passive character, the blank slate, the outer limits of ordinary. With his old magic, he conjures the pathetically amusing Mrs. Bliss, transfiguring her in the course of her final years from bland to bold, from a hoot in pink polyester to a heroine of depth and grace. The naiveté of this unenlightened woman is made clear:

Dorothy had not, beyond the universe of her own family, known all that many men, but even in her family had noticed the tendency of the women to leave the choicest cuts, ripest fruits, even the favorite most popular flavors of candy sour balls—the reds and purples, the greens and oranges—for the men. The most comfortable chairs around the dining room table. The coldest water, the hottest soup, the last piece of cake.

Mrs. Bliss, seldom called Dorothy, is an uncomplaining product of her narrow society back home in Chicago and in Miami's Condominium No. 1. Branded as wife and mother, she sees marriage as a trade-off: "Women honored the men who put food on the table, who provided the table on which the food was put, and the men saved them." Mrs. Bliss feels that she was saved from her dreary job in the dress shop by Ted. As it turned out, she was saved to become a background figure, a leftover who can't balance a checkbook, never mind the stock emotions of her life.

Mrs. Bliss would seem to be a Jewish version of Evan Connell's foolishly innocent and touching Mrs. Bridge, save for the fact that Elkin's Dorothy has large adventures. This isn't Kansas, folks—it's Miami, and the condo crowd of retirees is straight out of central casting. What can transpire beyond the next illness, predictable death, visit from the kids, card game, potluck in the rec room? A novel with an amazingly inventive structure in which, for starters, a stranger comes to the door with a proposition for Mrs. Ted Bliss. Unlike Elkin's criers and kibitzers—men always alive to the scam, whether conning or being conned—Dorothy is a dupe, a sitting duck.

The deal has to do with Ted's '78 Buick LeSabre, which Alcibiades Chitral wants to buy (actually, he supposedly wants the parking space in the condo that goes with the car). Chitral is one of the condo's "Latins." The Jewish Establishment, "stereotypical down to the ground," refers to all new neighbors—Venezuelans, Chileans, Colombians, Cubans—as Latins. Life as they have lived it by the pool in Miami is changing, has changed. Chitral turns out to be a drug lord, and his use of the LeSabre to stash his hold is a desecration of that beloved artifact, the family car. Mrs. Bliss sends him up for a mythic 100 years with her testimony.

Elkin has been criticized wrongly for his lack of plot; the fact is that he is not satisfied by a simple anecdotal story with ethnic overtones like the one he sets up here in the first pages. His interest lies in the consequences of plot, in what happens when the untoward incident disrupts the overly ordered life.

Will Dorothy Bliss now wake from her dull dream? Has she left the door ajar? Is she to be forever condemned to be as dumb as yet another Latino con artist sees her:

She wasn't human, she was a cliché quivering in the corner. Of course she was a pillar of love. She was a pillar of love capable of any greed, nastiness, bad manners, gossip or folly. A patriot only to consanguinity, this cowering special pleader of blood who traded on her revenant, immemorial widowship and mommyhood.

In Elkin's best work, the slight of caricature gains the fullness of character. And so the story of Mrs. Ted Bliss goes on, as life goes on to transcend mere plot. In this last-lap-of-the-road Bildungsroman, Elkin explores the afterlife, life after the shocking event—the death of a loved one, the sentencing of the guilty.

The protected life of the survivor, Dorothy Bliss, is seemingly without dimension—without reference to mass death and mass guilt. Writ large in Dorothy's story, however, are the undercurrent of her insufficiency and the struggle to overcome her innocence. The discoveries she makes about neighbors and family, and, painfully, about herself, form a grand and continuing narrative that is set in motion after the Keystone Kops and robbers sale of the Buick to Chitral.

As Mrs. Bliss is set free of her constraints, so is the novelist set free of the programmed story, free to let Mrs. Bliss confront less-comfortable memories in which even the beloved Ted was not free of major misdemeanors. She is free to mourn the death of a son and free to discover that in the present she lives at an emotional as well as a geographic distance from family.

Elkin wrote against the constraint of plot, as did Melville, daring to stop the whale chase for a brilliant dissertation. So we have Mrs. Bliss set in play, visiting her dull, prosperous children, visiting a spick-and-span prison in which Chitral, who calls himself a "cliché," is given a Stanley Elkin riff:

"Had you been here when we came to the New World we'd have made you slaves, stolen your gold and smashed your temples. We'd have wiped out your mathematics and astronomy and forbidden you access to your terrible gods. No offense, ma'am, but there's something loathsome and repellent to persons like me in persons like you.

"Perhaps your passivity—I bear you no grudge, Widow Bliss, I've no bones to pick with your kind—is at odds with our conquistador spirit, something antithetical between our engagement and the Jew's torpid stupor, his incuriosity and dead-pan, poker-faced genius for suffering…."

And on and on he rants, in possession of the author's stunning rhetoric, in sentences with cadences that scan; a lecture, or is it a sermon from the devil we create by roping ourselves off from those not of our kind? This novel is profoundly about the tags we hang on ourselves and others, sexually and racially; about the dishonest mumble of polite memories, polite words; about our separate dictions of discord: Chitral with his wild articulation, his lethal cultural overview; Mrs. Bliss with her Yiddish phrases, homey, shopworn, antique.

As I read Mrs. Ted Bliss, I felt that the writer, who suffered for many years with multiple sclerosis, knew that this was his last time on stage and that his voice must carry—unmiked, no replays—to the last row. Elkin believed in voice, in his voice as a writer. When you read Elkin—outrageous, forgiving, compassionate, always testing the possibilities of his characters and exploring the bounds of their stories and of fiction itself—you read Elkin prose, not laid-back minimal reportage.

"But life's tallest order," Elkin wrote, "is to keep the feelings up, to make the two dollars worth of euphoria go the distance. And life can't do that. So fiction does. And there, right there, is the real—I want to say 'only'—morality of fiction." Yet this last work, this posthumous novel (what a high old time he'd have with that category), ends on a moral note.

Dorothy, grown older and infinitely wiser than Mrs. Bliss, the well-preserved widow, sits with Louise Munez, once known to her as a strange girl in the small society of the condo. Louise is now a woman of 50. The semblance of family is long gone from Condominium No. 1 and at this particular moment everyone has fled. They sit alone waiting for Hurricane Andrew, the unpredictable act of nature or God. Mrs. Bliss opens her arms:

In the darkness, she lifted her left hand to Louise's head and began to stroke the dry hair.

Because everything else falls away. Family, friends, love falls away. Even madness stilled at last. Until all that's left is obligation.

Obligation, as in the promise to forbear, as in the observance of our humanity.

Mrs. Ted Bliss came to me with a notice announcing the author's publicity tour. Elkin was a master mimic. We will miss him in eight cities doing his clever takes on the cast of minor characters who surround Dorothy Bliss—the skimmers, the shysters, a fraudulent therapist. But let it be known that the sustained and sustaining performance for Elkin's readers will be there, in perpetuity on the page. He went the distance.

Walter Goodman (review date 17 September 1995)

SOURCE: "Twilight of a Baleboosteh," in The New York Times Book Review, September 17, 1995, p. 7.

[Goodman is an American journalist and critic who frequently writes on television for The New York Times. In the following review of Mrs. Ted Bliss, he argues that, though it is not Elkin's best work, it is characteristically intelligent and funny and parts of it will "stay with you after you've given up on the plot."]

Has any reviewer faced with a Stanley Elkin novel not tried to describe its intoxication with words, a River Joyce springing from the incidental, swelling through the uncharted, anticlimaxing in the unexpected? The high-flying riffs, the virtuoso vaudeville shticks, the shameless clichés, the daft dialogue, the obsessively accurate lists of everything and anything, the unsettling mix of the funny and the fraught? Readers exasperated with the patchy plots and mistrustful of characters who are the author's mouthpieces may still relish the show. And so it is with his final work [Mrs. Ted Bliss]. Consider:

She spent endless hours (three or four a day) in her kitchen, preparing food, doing the dishes till they sparkled, mopping the floor, scouring the sink, wiping down the stove; yet she had never been a very good cook, only a driven taskmistress, seldom varying her menus and never, not even when she entertained guests, a recipe, obsessive finally, so finicky about the world whenever she was alone in it that she was never (this preceded her deafness) entirely comfortable outside the door to her apartment (where she conceived of the slipcovers on her living room furniture, and perhaps even of the fitted terry-cloth cover on the lid of the toilet seat in the bathrooms, as a necessary part of the furniture itself; for her the development of clear, heavy-duty plastic a technological breakthrough, a hinge event in science, up there with Kem cards, washable mah-jongg tiles, lifelong shmuts-dread, a first impression she must have taken as a child in Russia, a sense of actual biological trayf, fear of the Gentile, some notion of caste deeper than a Hindu's, a notion, finally, of order), something stubborn and stolid and profoundly resistant in her Slavic features, her adamant, dumb and disapproving stance like that of a farm animal or a very picky eater.

That's Mrs. Ted Bliss, eponymous heroine of the 17th book by Stanley Elkin, who died in May. An unusual central character for him: a woman, and such an old one—80, give or take, and a widow to boot—and such a Jewish one, who flavors her often sour reflections with bits of Yiddish, crunches of lump sugar sweetening the lemony glass of tea. Still healthy, kayn aynhoreh, but aware that she never much enjoyed her long life. Not particularly lovable, but echt Miami Beach.

Elkinites will have no trouble recognizing her unstoppable locutions as the streetwise, sheltered, tough, vulnerable, ironic, yearning lingo of other Jewish-American writers—Bellow, Roth, Malamud—with whom Elkin has reasonably been conjoined. The washers on these gents' samovars are shot; there's no turning them off.

Why "Mrs. Ted"? Well, that's the way Dorothy has thought of herself for all the decades of her marriage, to which she came as an unformed, unknowing, fearful, suspicious girl, and deep down nothing much has changed. No liberation for this missus. She turned into a baleboosteh, queen of the kitchen, raising her three children in the physical and emotional shelter provided by her butcher husband. A woman whose days are now filled with activity without action. A vain woman—but no fooling around, thanks.

Sex and age aside, Mrs. Ted is as occupied with death and disability as any other Elkin creation (pancreatic cancer in George Mills; Elkin's own disease, multiple sclerosis, in The Franchiser and in the short story "Her Sense of Timing"; all manner of harrowing afflictions in The Magic Kingdom). Like Rose Helen in The MacGuffin, Mrs. Ted is hard of hearing and isn't crazy about earpieces; her world has a way of fading in and out, depending on her own inclinations and the author's needs. As for death, what is Florida, where Mrs. Ted now lives alone in a seventh-floor condominium, but a last stop in the American dream? "Hey, who's fooling who? Nobody got out of this place alive." It's the living end.

Lincoln Road is in extremis:

Half the shops were boarded up or turned into medical buildings where chiropractors and recreational therapeusisists kept their offices; and in Wolfie's almost the only people you ever saw were dried-up old Jewish ladies on sticks with loose dentures hanging down beneath their upper lips or riding up their jaws, and holding on for dear life to their fat doggie bags of rolls and collapsing pats of foiled, melting butter that came with their cups of coffee and single boiled egg, taking them back to the lone rooms in which they lived in old, whitewashed, three-story hotels far down Collins.

Ted, olov hasholem, has already been gone "too many years," and her dearly mourned son Marvin, olov hasholem, olov hasholem, was lost even earlier, to leukemia, finished off not only before the arrival of death with dignity but before pain management. "The chozzers gobbled up the red cells like there was no tomorrow. They had a picnic with him."

So what already is the plot? Don't ask. It has to do with Mrs. Ted, as dependent as ever on the tricky attentions of men, tiptoeing out of her condominium cocoon, taking a few nervous chances and in some shaky way being reconciled, more or maybe less, to her two surviving children and their families, not bad people, but insignificant beside the anguished memories of her Marvin.

The men are the main thing. Courtly, threatening, antic, they divert the reader briefly from Mrs. Ted's kvetching, fetching though it often is. Especially the elegant Latins, those Cesar Romeros who share the condo with the over-the-hill Jews: Alcibiades Chitral, maybe a drug lord, who wants Ted's Buick LeSabre for some dubious business; Hector Camerando, a big shot in jai alai and the dogs, who offers Mrs. Ted a tip or two; Tommy Auveristas, an importer, ho ho. Their "sexy, perky, tango air sent unmixed signals of something like risk and danger that sailed right over the Jews' heads." But not over Mrs. Ted's; her they hit right in her girlish heart.

Everything about these guys is shady, not to say obscure—except as incarnations of Mrs. Ted's suppressed longings. Their entrances excite her expectations and the reader's, only to disappoint both. The huggermugger about drugs and the Buick is as hard to follow or swallow as the un-kosher dreck served at Tommy Auveristas's suspicious open house. The Latins' main accomplishment is to have taken lessons in rhetoric from Professor Elkin, only they were not A students: "No offense, ma'am," Señor Chitral says with undisguisedly offensive intent, "but there's something loathsome and repellent to persons like me in persons like you. Perhaps your passivity—I bear you no grudge, Widow Bliss, I've no bones to pick with your kind—is at odds with our conquistador spirit, something antithetical between our engagement and the Jew's torpid stupor, his incuriosity and deadpan, poker-faced genius for suffering, like a cartoon kike's stoicism struck in a shekel." Stage Latin?

Also on call and equally recognizable in the Jewish-American canon, there is Junior Yellin, the onetime untrustworthy partner of Ted, the unreformable black marketeer who gave Mrs. Ted an unforgettable feeling-up in her husband's butcher shop so long ago, and who now returns as a recreational therapeusisist, still hustling, nowadays treasure hunting on beaches taken up by

women older than Dorothy on beach chairs of bright woven plastic, indifferent as stylites, their skin dark as scabs; men, the ancient retired, chilly in suits and ties; girls in thong bathing suits, their teenage admirers trailing behind them like packs of wild dogs; kids, overexcited, wild in the surf, their parents frantically waving their arms like coaches in Little League; waiters, kitchen help and house-keepers on smoke breaks; small clans of picnickers handing off contraband sandwiches, contraband beer; lovers kneading lotions and sun block into one another's flesh like a sort of sexual first aid.

Pardon the extended quotes, but how else to get across the essence and appeal of Mrs. Ted, as of other Elkiniana? Toward the end, in search of a climax, the author resorts to Hurricane Andrew as accompaniment to Mrs. Ted's final coming to terms. Tune out the Sturm-ing und Drang-ing. Nobody knew better than Elkin that life and careers rarely end on a big note.

Mrs. Ted Bliss may not be Stanley Elkin's best, but it is a smart, generous, melancholy, funny, even elegiac work by a prodigious practitioner. Passages—all right, shticks—stay with you after you've given up on the plot. There's Mrs. Ted out shopping with her visiting health-nut daughter-in-law, Ellen, who announces that her doctor recommends coffee high colonics. A few pages later, Mrs. Ted awakens to the smell of fresh coffee: "Great, thought Mrs. Ted Bliss, she's making herself an enema."

David Milofsky (review date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Mrs. Ted Bliss, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 69, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 150-53.

[In the following highly positive review, Milofsky prefaces his comments on Mrs. Ted Bliss with a brief tribute to Elkin's life and works.]

The king is dead—and I don't mean Elvis. Stanley Elkin, arguably the most wildly imaginative fiction writer of the post-war generation, passed from this planet May 31 and literature is poorer for it. To the end, however, Stanley had his laugh as the New York Times obit was shot through with inaccuracies, starting with the cause of death. "We told them Daddy died of heart failure," Elkin's daughter Molly said, "because only drunks die of pancreatitis. My father did a lot of things, but he was no drunk." Our newspaper of record also got Stanley's place of birth wrong ("Brooklyn," his wife Joan remarked. "Give me a break."), and the number of novels he wrote. Other than that, it was a great obituary, but then Stanley never had any luck with journalists. He was after a higher truth than they knew.

Yet—and this is a big yet—Elkin was misunderstood by his peers as well as by the popular press. Like God in his brilliant triptych, The Living End, Stanley never really found his audience, never won the Pulitzer and was a three-time runner up for the National Book Award. And while things like this aren't supposed to bother writers, ironically, Elkin, like Brecht, always wanted the large popular audience more than he did the approval of the faux intellectuals of academic literary salons ("I don't even know what metafiction is," he once complained in conversation). And when he did win a big award, the National Book Critics Circle prize in 1983, he couldn't resist saying, "I could be a wise guy and thank the three critics who actually reviewed George Mills, but I won't."

The fact that his failure to achieve a popular audience didn't make Elkin bitter is a tribute to him, both as writer and as man. He didn't indulge in the common cop-out of claiming that future generations would discover his genius, and he never lost his sense of humor about his own work. When an editor of a literary magazine wrote saying that he planned to devote an issue of his magazine to Elkin if Stanley would give him a piece of fiction for the issue, Stanley replied that he thought it "would be unseemly if I contributed to a Festschrift for me. And actually, I'm a very seemly guy." The Festschrift issue never appeared and Elkin never mentioned it again. It wasn't what mattered. Seemliness mattered.

Yet even among the literati Elkin was more admired than he was read and, in a sense, it's understandable, though every sentence he wrote was a small work of art. Elkin is hard in an age that wants things to be easy. And while it is true that his genius inheres in the fact that he thinks of things no one else could ever conceive—that his work simply isn't like anyone or anything else—some of those things are bizarre, to say the least. To put it baldly, in anyone else's hands, these plots wouldn't be very promising. Take The Magic Kingdom (1985), a novel about a group of terminally ill children given a trip to Disney World as their dying wish. Or how about The Rabbi of Lud, in which the lowest ranking member of his class at the Jewish Theological Seminary is given a "flock" consisting of all the people in the largest Jewish cemetery in New Jersey? Or even the award-winning George Mills, which considers the life and times of "George, the lunch-pail kid," scion of forty generations of blue collar workers dating all the way back to the Crusades. The point doesn't have to do with silk purses but rather with the fact that this material is so unique that no one but Elkin would even attempt to fashion it into a novel. And yet he did. Over and over. Time and again. And each time we read in wonder, not understanding exactly what it was that was working there, though the more alert could admire Elkin's dazzling literary catalogues, extended metaphors and remarkable diction. Reading him you didn't even think you wanted to be like him; that was out of the question. You were just glad to be around him, even if it was only through his fiction.

Which brings us to the current volume Mrs. Ted Bliss, which was completed before Stanley's death and was published this fall by Hyperion. If the plots of the books mentioned above seemed less than promising, they were real page-turners compared to this one, which concerns a once-beautiful but now deaf widow (with a hearing aid "the size of a Walkman hanging out of her ear") living by herself in a Florida condominium after her husband's death. You wonder what they're going to do for jacket copy, for ads, for this novel. But if plot has been said to be Elkin's weakness in days gone by, it's a pleasure to report that Mrs. Ted Bliss has nothing but.

Dorothy Bliss's condo is split fairly evenly between elderly Jews and younger Hispanics, whom the Jews suspect of being drug dealers. One of these men, Archimedes Chitral, approaches Dorothy shortly after her husband's death and offers to buy Ted's Buick LeSabre, which has sat in its prime parking space untouched since his demise. Since Dorothy doesn't want to pay taxes on a car she doesn't drive, she agrees to a price she knows is wildly inflated and then discovers that Chitral is part of a drug ring and that the DEA has seized the car as evidence. In short order, she is called upon to appear in court and ends up involved with several of Chitral's colleagues, who offer her opportunities to bet on sure things at jai alai. Given that Dorothy was known to be beautiful in her youth, it still strains credulity that a seventy-five-year-old widow would draw the ardent attentions of such men. Yet Elkin makes it all believable, as usual, even ordinary.

More important than the plot, however, is the theme of Elkin's new book. For he is writing here about loss, and writing about it in a way that makes this a novel of witness. Mrs. Bliss makes it a point never to trivialize death, or use euphemisms. Whenever she speaks of the dead, which is often in her retirement community, she says that the person "lost his life," which is chillingly accurate. What Mrs. Ted Bliss is about is loss; loss of place, loss of friends, loss of social position, finally of life itself which gives rise to everything else. It is in its own way eerie to have Elkin speaking to us of loss from the grave, but that is unquestioningly what he is doing. And in this picture of a woman growing old alone, there is something heroic about simply going on as Dorothy does, as all of us in one way or another must.

Yet even in the midst of her loss, Dorothy must deal inevitably with her children, neighbors, all the detritus of life. Among the many brilliant things in this brilliant book, Elkin demonstrates the enormous amount of meshugaas parents, especially elderly parents, must absorb from their children. Even when children are senior citizens, parents, like Mrs. Bliss, must tolerate their children's petty bickering, their enthusiasms. One of Dorothy's sons becomes an orthodox Jew, though he wouldn't say kaddish for his father. Her daughter-in-law, who arrives for a visit, is a health food nut eager to give Dorothy enemas.

Now she knew what they could do together while her daughter-in-law was there waiting for her stay-over Saturday discount. They could give each other enemas. First Ellen could give her a coffee-bean enema, then they'd trade off and Dorothy could give her daughter-in-law a lovely rice enema. Coffee beans, rice. It was six of one, half a dozen of the other. Tomorrow, tomorrow they would lay in provisions.

Even in the midst of such trials, however, Dorothy manages to keep a good humor and to honor her past, specifically her dead husband, who never appears in the novel, except in memory. That this is somewhat archaic in a time of liberated women doesn't bother Elkin and it doesn't bother Dorothy, though she has "sympathy with her gender." In Dorothy's culture, women dressed for men, cooked for men, indeed lived for men. "… even in her family [she] had noticed the tendency of the women to leave the choicest cuts, ripest fruits, even the most popular flavors of candy sourballs—the reds and purples the greens and oranges—for the men. The most comfortable chair, the coldest water, the hottest soup, the last piece of cake…. They worked combs through the boys' hair gently; they scratched their backs."

In return, the men worked and provided (Dorothy does not even know how to write a check at her husband's death), and died young. From this perspective, it doesn't seem like much of a bargain for anyone, but Elkin's not making deals; he's creating a world and it is one that is uniquely, brilliantly, his own.

The novel ends with Dorothy holed up in her condo with the building's security guard, the two holdouts when a hurricane hits southern Florida. The image of the small, deaf woman left alone with a stranger in the face of a natural disaster could stand for Elkin's grim view of human existence. "… everything else falls away. Family, friends, love fall away. Even madness stilled at last. Until all that's left is obligation."

Dorothy Bliss's obligation is to wait out life, as one would wait out a storm, with forbearance and wit. The same, of course, could be said of Elkin, who endured more pain and tragedy than anyone deserves. He once wrote, "As long as you've got your health, 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 of style."

One hopes that was enough for him. Certainly the body of work he has left behind should satisfy anyone who's wondering as to the seriousness and importance of contemporary American fiction. Those of us who knew him mourn Stanley's death, but it's reassuring to know that he went out on top—and in style. Mrs. Ted Bliss is a touching, enduring book, a worthy epitaph to a tragic life.


Obituaries And Tributes