Sunday, August 14, 2016
Stanley Elkin's brush with excellence
Stanley Elkin always was a writer (from the 70s through 90s, more or less) who always seemed on the brink, always just about to receive much wider recognition but never quite getting there. Sure, he published a lot and won a fair share of awards, including I'm pretty sure a National Book Award - but he never reached the level, in wider public esteem, of a Roth, a Bellow, a Barth, even a Malamud - and why not? I have to think part of it was that he spent his career teaching as Wash U in St. Louis, which, certainly in pre-Internet days, was far from the literary vortex. Second, and more important, sadly, I have to say he was just not at their level of gravitas - he did some great comic turns, and I imagine his stories, colloquial and imaginative, read very well aloud. But - well, take a look at his story selected for 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories: The Conventional Wisdom (1978). The story starts very well: a beset upon Minneapolis man, Ellerbee, tries to do the right thing in life but is met by obstacles at every turn. He's made terrible investment, is in what seems to be a cranky marriage, and his liquor store has been held up twice and he's trying to do his best to continue to support, out of his own pocket, the families of the two clerks shot in robberies - despite continued nagging of his shrew-wife. He pulls together enough money to open a new store in a nicer neighborhood but gets robbed there as well (he believes, probably accurately, that a syndicate arranged the robbers in order to buy him out on the cheap) - at this point in the story we have a lot of sympathy for him and wonder what will happen next to the Job-like character and whether he will triumph over fate - and then he dies. So - we go off to heaven with him, where he sees that the dead really wear halos and play harps!, he sees God, meets St. Peter - and then gets sent to hell, where he sees devils with cloven feet, and he suffers in fire and brimstone. So, literally, what the hell? If you're going to send a character into an afterlife, at least use your imagination, right? Ultaimtely, he gets an audience with God, who condemns him for breaking various commandments - coveting, not honoring his parents, and so forth. In frustration, at the end, Ellerbee vows to meet the man who shot him so they can curse God together. This is a total mishmash of a story with originality or insight or point of view - Elkin seems to have given up on the narrative he began and gone down an avenue of cliches and cheap tricks. I know he wrote better stories than this, but this one does show how he came close to excellence and then fell short.