This hasn’t been a good year, by any reckoning, for the epic, fantastical strains—absurdism, fable, surrealism—in American fiction. The late John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Barth’s Sabbatical, Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick: violently dissimilar in other respects, they all suggest the fatigue (or uneasiness) that dogs most recent attempts to reach beyond life-sized storytelling. Even the year’s most energetic exercise in the fanciful, D. Keith Mano’s Take Five, was tenuously grounded (and largely ignored). And, in these two novels by writers whose work has often embraced the not-quite-real with purpose and authority, the leaps to metaphor and macrocosm seem half-hearted, arbitrary, sending up central images that don’t earn their keep. “The Names” (a cult) is the weakest notion in The Names, Don DeLillo’s stately yet fractured meditation on terrorism, semantics, and Americans abroad; George Mills (an Everyman) is the weakest character in George Mills, Stanley Elkin’s lavish yet unsatisfying anything-goes-in variety show.
Elkin, of course, has been twitted in the past for his laissez-faire approach to plot. The Dick Gibson Show was a loosely spinning radio dial, The Franchiser a wayward bus-and-truck tour; even The Living End, austere and potent in its pared-down triptych format, each sequence more a canto or a chamber-music movement than a would-be chapter, didn’t quite shrug off the scent of failed narrative. Yet if Elkin’s best novels flounder and lurch, they also burn at their centers—with fierce, desolate visions (of life as a cosmic one-liner, of the fast-fed American landscape) that demand imaginative, larger-than-life incarnations. The tilt toward pop-epic, toward fable, seems an imperative, not a whim. When radio-man Dick Gibson or franchiser Ben Flesh wanders his picaresque way into the surreal, the wildest episode can be tuned to that central metaphor—especially since Elkin sweats to get the texture of the way-it-really-is (a Holiday Inn, a DJ’s spiel) exactly right. Best of all, Elkin at his least earthbound has also tended to be Elkin at his most comically, verbally inspired: if it takes a ghost or two, as in the middle section of The Living End, to bring together the lyrical and vaudevillian halves of Elkin’s unruly talent for a rare harmonious triumph, then his impulse toward the mythical is surely cause for celebration.
George Mills is certainly mythical—and mythic—enough. He is “God’s blue collar worker,” history’s “Horseshit Man,” first seen as a stableboy to a “sissy sir” on the First Crusade, later seen as a hapless spy for England’s George IV, but mostly seen as middle-aged George Mills of present-day St. Louis: a blue-collar man like “Greatest Grandfather Mills,” he works for a slumlord (removing the possessions of the evicted) and feels the burden of those “thousand top-heavy lean years of his second-fiddle fate.” (He also, for good measure, and with no apparent justification, announces that he’s born again, “saved.”)
But while Elkin wallpapered Ben …