The Nowhere City
How bitter must be the wailing of one of those souls lingering beyond Lethe, when Stanley Elkin beckons it to leave Elysium, to return a second time and bear the sluggish body! The shade of Achilles said it was better to be the slave of a poor farmer than to be king of the dead, but Achilles, not having read the stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, could not have known how miserable life can be in the vision of a really determined author. Perhaps Thersites, the bandy-legged and pin-headed, envious, becuffed, tear-stained, might have understood; but I wonder if even he would have drunk the dark blood willingly just for a chance to live again in one of these nine stories.
Stanley Elkin summons up his nine heroes and then beats them back down, blow by blow, into the dust. That they are revenants adds perhaps some special painfulness to what he does, for we have seen them miserable enough before: Greenspahn the suffering storekeeper, Preminger who goes to Catskill resorts hunting spinsters, Bertie the addicted musician, Feldman whose doctor gave him a year to live, Push the neighborhood bully, Cousin Poor Lesley, Perlmutter…. They have thronged with their sorrows in the Jewish literature of our day. But here Greenspahn must suffer not only the death of his son and the cruel affront to his nerves of the coarse world he lives in; his employees cheat him, his customers cheat him, his companions bait him, he is constipated, he has horrible dreams, and at last he must recognize that his son, “twenty-three years old, wifeless, jobless, sacrificing nothing even in the act of death, leaving the world with his life not started,” was also and gratuitously a thief who stole from his father’s cash-register.
The manner in which Stanley Elkin conducts his characters to their dooms is sprightly. Even the characters themselves are given to making bitter jokes. Greenspahn thinks of his son. “His son was in the ground. Under all that earth. Under all that dirt. In a metal box. Airtight, the funeral director told him. Oh my God, air-tight. Vacuum-sealed. Like a can of coffee.” The addicted musician, bent on destroying himself, destroys the apartment his friends have kindly lent him, with the zeal and dreadful efficiency of the Marx brothers, and with as many jokes. He hits one of his hostess’s paintings with a glass of beer, and observing the beer drip down the leg of a donkey in it, he says, “Action painting.” He wanders through the apartment, through study, kitchen, bedroom, and in each says, “Here’s where all the magic happens.” He experiences hallucinated dialogues which, like his wisecracks, take the form of ironic parodies of bourgeois clichés. Doubtless we are supposed to feel for him some of the pity and terror we feel for William Campbell in Hemingway’s similar and very much shorter story, “A Pursuit Race.” The wit of the man who is destroying himself is supposed to give us…
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