Elkin, Stanley L. 1930–1995

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Elkin, Stanley L. 1930–1995

(Stanley Lawrence Elkin)

PERSONAL: Born May 11, 1930, in New York, NY; died May 31, 1995, of heart failure in St. Louis, MO; son of Phil (a salesman) and Zelda (Feldman) Elkin; married Joan Marion Jacobson, February 1, 1953; children: Philip Aaron, Bernard Edward, Molly Ann. Education: University of Illinois, A.B., 1952, M.A., 1953, Ph.D., 1961. Religion: Jewish.

CAREER: Washington University, St. Louis, Mo., instructor, 1960–62, assistant professor, 1962–66, associate professor, 1966–69, professor of English, 1969–95. Visiting professor at Smith College, 1964–65, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1967, University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, 1969, University of Iowa, 1974, Yale University, 1975, and Boston University, 1976. Military service: U.S. Army, 1955–57.

MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

AWARDS, HONORS: Longview Foundation award, 1962; Paris Review humor prize, 1965; Guggenheim fellow, 1966–67; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1968–69; National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities grant, 1972; American Academy of Arts and Letters award, 1974; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, 1980; Sewanee Review prize, 1981, for Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1982, for George Mills; Brandeis University, creative arts award, 1986; New York University, Elmer Holmes Bobst award, 1991; National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 1995, for Mrs. Ted Bliss; honorary degrees: L.H.D., University of Illinois, 1986, D.Litt., Bowling Green State University, 1992.


Boswell: A Modern Comedy (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1964, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1999.

Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (stories), Random House (New York, NY), 1966, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2000.

A Bad Man (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1967, reprinted, with an introduction by David C. Dougherty, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2003.

The Dick Gibson Show (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1971, reprinted, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 1998.

The Making of Ashenden (novella; also see below), Covent Garden Press (London, England), 1972.

Searches and Seizures (contains The Bailbondsman, The Making of Ashenden, and The Condominium), Random House (New York, NY), 1973 (published in England as Eligible Men: Three Short Novels, Gollancz, 1974), published as Alex and the Gypsy: Three Short Novels, Penguin (New York, NY), 1977.

The Franchiser (novel), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, with a foreword by William H. Gass, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2001.

The Living End (contains three contiguous novellas, The Conventional Wisdom, The Bottom Line, and The State of the Art, which first appeared, in slightly different form, respectively in American Review, Antaeus, and TriQuarterly), Dutton (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, with an afterword by Curtis White, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2004.

Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits, foreword by Robert Coover, Dutton (New York, NY), 1980.

(Editor with Shannon Ravenel and author of introduction) The Best American Short Stories, 1980, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1980.

The First George Mills (novel), Pressworks (Dallas, TX), 1981, reprinted, with an introduction by Chris Lehmann, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2003.

George Mills, Dutton (New York, NY), 1982.

The Magic Kingdom, Dutton (New York, NY), 1985, reprinted, with an introduction by Rick Moody, Dalkey Archive Press (Normal, IL), 2000.

Early Elkin, Bamberger Books (Flint, MI), 1985.

The Rabbi of Lud, Scribner (New York, NY), 1987.

The Six-Year Old Man, Bamberger Books (Flint, MI), 1987.

The Coffee Room (radio play), KWMU-FM in St. Louis, 1988.

The MacGuffin: A Novel, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1991.

Pieces of Soap, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.

Van Gogh's Room at Arles: Three Novellas, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1992.

Mrs. Ted Bliss, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1995.

Also author of film scenario "The Six-Year-Old Man," published in Esquire, December, 1968. Stories appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Houghton, 1962, 1963, 1965, and 1978. Contributor to Epoch, Views, Accent, Esquire, American Review, Antaeus, TriQuarterly, Perspective, Chicago Review, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Southwest Review, Paris Review, Harper's, Oui, and Saturday Evening Post.

ADAPTATIONS: "The Bailbondsman" was filmed as "Alex and the Gypsy." The film rights to Boswell and A Bad Man have been purchased.

SIDELIGHTS: "'What happens next?' is a question one doesn't usually ask in Stanley L. Elkin's [works]," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times. "Plot is not really Mr. Elkin's game. His fiction runs on language, on parody, on comic fantasies and routines. Give him conventional wisdom and he will twist it into tomfoolery…. Give [him] cliché and jargon and he will fashion of it a kind of poetry." Long recognized and praised for his extraordinary linguistic vitality and comic inventiveness, Elkin, though he dislikes these terms, has been described as a "stand-up literary comedian" and a "black humorist" who invites us to laugh at the painful absurdities, frustrations, and disappointments of life. His books "aren't precisely satires," according to Bruce Allen in the Chicago Tribune Book World, but rather are "unillusioned yet affectionate commemorations of rascally energy and ingenuity." Ironically, in the view of some critics, Elkin's strength has often been his weakness as well, for he is sometimes criticized for carrying his high-energy rhetoric and comic monologues to extremes. Nonetheless, Josh Greenfeld, who considered Elkin "at once a bright satirist, a bleak absurdist, and a deadly moralist," declared in the New York Times Book Review, "I know of no serious funny writer in this country who can match him."

Searches and Seizures, a collection of three novellas, "should provide the uninitiated with an ideal introduction to [Elkin's] art even as it confirms addicts like me in our belief that no American novelist tells us more about where we are and what we're doing to ourselves," claimed Thomas R. Edwards in the New York Times Book Review. "This is an art that takes time—his scenes are comic turns that build cunningly toward climax in deflative bathos, and in the novels there's an inclination toward the episodic, the compulsive storyteller's looseness about connections and logic. [The first novella,] 'The Bailbondsman,' … is just about perfectly scaled to Elkin's imagination; we have a tight focus, one day in the life of an aging Cincinnati bondsman of Phoeni-cian descent, which nevertheless accommodates an astonishing thickness of texture, a weaving of events and psychic motifs that is as disturbing as it is funny."

The other two stories in Searches and Seizures are "The Making of Ashenden" and "The Condominium." The former is, in the words of Clancy Sigal in the New Republic, "a fantasy satirizing Brewster Ashenden, an idle wastrel in love with Jane Loes Lipton, a kind of Baby Jane Holzer with a Schweitzerian yen to do good. The 'shocking' climax, within the dream landscape of a rich Englishman's private zoo, has Brewster interminably screwing a bear." The man-bear sex scene "is vigorous, raunchy, painful, smelly—and downright touching," exclaimed Bruce Allen in the Hudson Review, and it forces Brewster, humbly and hilariously, to admit his animal nature.

"The Condominium" is a tale about a graduate student who inherits his father's Chicago condominium and "then gets fatally drawn into the numbing quality of its community life," noted Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. Though the pieces of these stories seem to be always "flying apart," Lehmann-Haupt concluded: "In some subtle way that defies all equations—metaphorical, symbolical, allegorical, or otherwise—everything connects with everything else. And tells us in a way that lies just beyond explanation, in crazy poetic searches and seizures, much about loneliness, sex, and mortality."

According to Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books, "the real subject of the three short novels contained in Searches and Seizures is a complicated invention of character by means of snowballing language. The writer invents characters who invent themselves as they talk and thereby invent him, the writer." The protagonist of "The Bailbondsman," for example, introduces himself as "Alexander Main the Bailbondsman. I go surety…. My conditions classic and my terms terminal. Listen, I haven't much law—though what I have is on my side, binding as clay, advantage to the house—but am as at home in replevin, debenture, and gage as someone on his own toilet seat with the door closed and the house empty." "The motive force of El-kin's writing," said William Plummer in the New Republic, "is 'the conventional wisdom' itself. His aggressive, high energy rhetoric comes into being under the pressure of cliche, which is not to suggest that his métier is either satire or camp. Rather, he seems to share with Emerson the vaguely platonic idea that the hackneyed is 'fossile poetry'—the Truth in tatters, in its fallen condition."

Thomas R. Edwards in New York Times Book Review claimed the first story "shows that an art founded on aggression, on assaults against the reader's habits of association and sense of good manners, can be both wrenchingly funny and oddly moving." Plummer called "The Bailbondsman" "one of the great works in the language—right up there, perhaps, with [Faulkner's] 'The Bear' and [Melville's] 'Bartleby.'" He added, however, one qualification: "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 pieces. Like Tristram Shandy, he believes in progress by digression."

But Clancy Sigal, also writing in the New Republic, did not grant Elkin's premises, noting, "Elkin's monologues, at which he excels, are the alienated patter of a brilliant, but turned off, stand-up literary comic. I'm very suspicious of it in large doses." Moreover, L.J. Davis charged in the Washington Post Book World that Elkin's focus on language weakens the characterization. "El-kin's characters," declared Davis, "are artifacts, superbly sculptured statuary adorned with rich garlands of prose. Sedentary, separate from us, their gestures frozen, they are meant to be observed but not experienced, admired but not touched. The strength of the writing imbues them with a kind of static life, but it does not bestow upon them either an autonomous vitality or a poignant humanity. They exist to prove a point." Davis concluded, "In a way, the prose itself becomes a hero."

Far from seeing Elkin's characters as passive instruments, however, Jonathan Raban argued in Encounter that the heroes in Searches and Seizures are tragic, in the classical sense: "They build up glittering verbal palaces around themselves, in cascading rhetorical monologues, in dreams, in deep wordy caverns of introspection. Their worlds are perfected right down to the final bauble on the last minaret. Then the crunch comes. They discover that no one else is living there but them. The brilliant talker is the proprietor and sole inhabitant of his universe, and he might as well be adrift in outer space. His fatal proficiency in language has taken him clean out of the world of other people. This is the central theme."

The Dick Gibson Show, Elkin's third novel, "contains enough comic material for a dozen nightclub acts," noted R.Z. Sheppard in Time, "yet it is considerably more than an entertainment." Joseph McElroy claimed in the New York Times Book Review that this "abso-lutely American compendium … may turn out to be our classic about radio." The hero of the book is a disc jockey who has worked for dozens of small-town radio stations across the country. "As the perpetual apprentice, whetting his skills and adopting names and accents to suit geography," said Sheppard, "he evolves into part of American folklore. As Dick Gibson, the paradox of his truest identity is that he is from Nowhere, U.S.A."

A radio talk-show host, Gibson is the principal listener for a bizarre cast of callers: Norman, the "caveman from Africa," whose linguistic equivalent for "chief" is "Aluminum Siding Salesman"; a rich orphaned boy—his skydiving parents accidentally parachuted into a zoo's tiger den—who has fears of being adopted for his money; a woman who wants to trade a bow and arrow, and in exchange will accept nothing but used puppets. Sheppard surmised that Gibson is "a McLuhan obfuscation made flesh—a benevolent witch doctor in an electronic village of the lonely, the sick, and the screwed up." In the New York Times Book Review McElroy argued that Elkin "unites manic narrative and satiric wit to ensure that we know Dick Gibson [as] … receiver of an America whose invisibility speaks live into the great gap of doubt inside him, itinerant listener in this big-hearted country where it's so hard to get anyone to listen."

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times, however, believed that while it could be argued that Dick Gibson is "the sound of American silence,… this is forcing things somewhat…. The bitter-sweet and seriocomic truth is that Stanley Elkin is [merely] stringing routines together…. Which is not to say that I didn't love … passages like 'the wide laps beneath her nurse's white uniform with its bas-relief of girdle and garter like landmarks under a light snow.' Or that I didn't sink to my knees from laughing time and again. It's just that after a while one gets tired, can predict the patterns, begins to look for more than gags, and can't really find much."

Geoffrey Wolf of Newsweek found that the novel's loose structure is patterned after that of radio itself. Acknowledging that the book "flies straight in the teeth of fiction's decorums," Wolff concludes that Elkin "insists on his freedom, radio's freedom to wander, and seems to accept radio's risk, the risk that the audience's attention will wander." McElroy, also noted that Elkin's digressions enhance the thematic concerns of the novel and commented, "Far from seeming prolix, Mr. Elkin's expansiveness—notably in the lunatic monologues of one horrendous talk-show night fourteen years after [World War II]—proves a rich and anxious means of further surrounding his theme."

John Leonard, writing in Saturday Review, considered The Franchiser to be the closest of Elkin's novels to The Dick Gibson Show; he also deemed it Elkin's best. "It is a brilliant conceit—the franchising of America on the prime interest rate; manifest destiny on credit," stated Leonard. "It is also considerably more than a conceit. It is a frenzied parable, rather as though the Wandering Jew and Willy Loman had gotten together on a vaudeville act. Who, after all, is displaced by the franchise? Ben Flesh, [the protagonist,] knows: 'Kiss off the neighborhood grocers and corner druggists and little shoemakers.' Kiss off, in other words, ethnicity, roots. Assimilate. Homogenize."

Some critics, however, fault the book for its digressiveness—a common flaw in Elkin's novels according to Robert Towers and John Irving. Towers said in the New York Times Book Review: "While he can invent wonderful scenes full of madness and power, Elkin seems unable to create a sustaining comic action or plot that could energize the book as a whole and carry the reader past those sections where invention flags or becomes strained. Without the onward momentum of plot … we are left with bits, pieces and even large chunks that tend to cancel each other out and turn the book into a kind of morass." Towers went on to note, "The need is especially felt in a book as long as The Franchiser." Novelist John Irving, also writing in the New York Times Book Review, declared that the "rap against Elkin is that he's too funny, and too fancy with his prose, for his own good…. It is brilliant comedy, but occasionally stagnant: the narrative flow is interrupted by Elkin's forays into some of the best prose-writing in English today; it is extraordinary writing, but it smacks at times of showing off—and it is digressive. Despite the shimmering language, the effect is one of density; I know too many readers who say they admire Stanley Elkin as a writer, but they haven't finished a single Elkin novel." Other reviewers praised Elkin's stylistic pyrotechnics in The Dick Gibson Show. Michael Wood of the New York Review of Books, for example, wrote that jokes and "gags for Elkin seem to represent some sort of hold on randomness, serve both to clarify and to stave off the dizzying sense that nothing has to happen the way it does, and they afford Elkin and his heroes a recurring, cheerfully defeated stance."

The Living End is, in the opinion of many critics, El-kin's best work. John Irving in the New York Times Book Review, for example, called it a "narrative marvel [with] a plot and such a fast pace that a veteran Elkin reader may wonder about the places where he lost interest, or lost his way, in reading Elkin before." The book consists of three contiguous novellas, "The Conven-tional Wisdom," "The Bottom Line," and "The State of the Art," which provide the kind of conventional, "beginning-middle-end," structure often lacking in Elkin's other novels. The titles of the novellas also reflect El-kin's characteristic attention to cliche, according to Harold Robbins in the Washington Post Book World. Robbins pointed out that 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."

In addition to the strenuous language and the book's structural balance, "in The Living End Elkin has finally found a subject worthy of him," wrote Geoffrey Stokes in the Village Voice. "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." Writing in Time, R.Z. Sheppard commented that with The Living End "Elkin must finally be recognized as the grownup's Kurt Vonnegut, the Woody Allen for those who prefer their love, death, and cosmic quarrels with true bite and sting."

With a vision that is sometimes blasphemous, the book begins with Ellerbee, a Minneapolis liquor-store owner and "the nicest of guys," noted Sheppard, who goes to Heaven after being gunned down behind the counter during a robbery. His surprise at Heaven's unsurprising sights, sounds, and smells—pearly gates, angels with harps, ambrosia, manna, and a choir that sings "Oh dem golden slippers"—however, turns to shock when St. Peter tells him, "beatifically," to go to Hell. The "ultimate ghetto," Hell also gives Ellerbee a sense of deja vu, with the devils' horns and pitchforks, and the sinners raping and mugging each other endlessly and pointlessly; moreover, there is cancer, angina, indigestion, headache, toothache, earache, and a painful, third-degree burning itch everywhere. "What Ellerbee discovers," declared Irving, "is that everything [about the afterlife] is true…. It's like life itself, of course, but so keenly exaggerated that Elkin manages to make the pain more painful, and the comedy more comic."

After several years God visits Hell, and Ellerbee asks why he, a good man, has been condemned. A mean-spirited and petty God charges him with selling the demon rum, keeping his store open on the Sabbath, uttering an occasional oath, having impure thoughts, and failing to honor his parents, even though he was orphaned as an infant. Sheppard noted that Ellerbee "ignored what Elkin labels 'the conventional wisdom.' The corollary: in a cosmos ruled by an unforgiving stickler, 'one can never have too much virtue.'"

Jeffrey Burke pointed out in Harper's that Elkin "founds his irreverence on the truths of contemporary religion, that is, on the myriad inconsistencies, cliches, superstitions, and insanities derived from centuries of creative theology," but claimed that Elkin's purpose lies beyond satire. Harold Robbins explained: "Unlike others of his generation … 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."

The remainder of the story leads up to the Day of Judgment, when God appears before the Heavenly Host to reveal that the purpose of creation was theatrical, though He never found His audience: "'Goodness? Is that what you think?… Were you born yesterday? You've been in the world. Is that how you explain trial and error, history by increment, God's long Slap and Tickle, His Indian-gift wrath? Goodness? No. It was Art! It was always Art. I work by the contrasts and metrics, by beats and the silences. It was all Art. Because it makes a better story is why.'" "Precisely because it's God talking," surmised Geoffrey Stokes, "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."

In his novel The MacGuffin, Elkin recounts the story of Bobbo Druff, a small-time city commissioner with failing health, a wife who is going deaf, and a grown-up son who still lives at home. Seeing his life slipping away from him, Druff creates a paranoid conspiracy theory that involves his ultimate demise and may include everyone he knows. The title of the novel comes from the term movie director Alfred Hitchcock used to denote anything that, as Paul Gray noted in Time, "gives spurious meaning to a plot." As explained by Thomas R. Edwards in the New Republic, the title reflects Druff's tendency to impute "some sinister coherence to the contingencies of ordinary experience." Edwards called the novel "splendid" and commented that the "conflict between randomness and purpose has always been a large theme in Elkin's fiction." Edwards also noted that "the climax of The MacGuffin is one of the most knowing and affecting treatments of the parent-child relationship that I can recall."

Van Gogh's Room at Arles: Three Novellas was published in 1992 and tells the story of "three more victims in a difficult world," as noted by Marvin J. LaHood in World Literature Today. In the first novella, "Her Sense of Timing," a university professor who is an invalid is abandoned by his wife and must turn for help to a corporation that cares for the elderly and disabled. In "Tom Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manqua," the narrator recounts her missed chance to become the Queen of England. The final novella, "Van Gogh's Room at Arles," focuses on another college professor who wins a grant to go to Arles to study how prestigious academics from colleges view community colleges. LaHood noted that this novella was the best of the three in its portrayal of how a "mean-spirited" man is transformed. LaHood went on to note, "Stanley Elkin has portrayed an epiphany as moving as any in literature." Louisa Ermelino, writing in People, praised the novellas, commenting, "The three novellas of his 16th book treat us again to his cornucopian delight in language." Ermelino also noted, "In these tales everyone is caught on the flypaper of situations that are tragic, absurd and hilarious."

Elkins's final novel, 1995's Mrs. Ted Bliss, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It tells the tale of an elderly Russian-born Jewish widow who lives in a condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay. Although not self-reflective and easily pleased by the mundane things of life, the disinterested Mrs. Bliss finds herself encountering a number of intrigues involving profiteers, drug dealers, and a general unraveling of her and her condo neighbors' secure lives. James P. Degnan, writing in America, found the novel disappointing and "vitiated by authorial intrusion." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "it is the trenchant quips about the way of all flesh, and memory, that will give Dorothy Bliss a life after death." Arthur M. Saltzman, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction noted that Mrs. Ted Bliss is "a quieter volume" than many of the author's other works. Saltzman concluded that the novel "is a fitting conclusion to Elkin's career of refuting human foibles and the failings of the flesh with the most vital, surprising, passionate style around."



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