THE LIVING END is Stanley Elkin's comic fable of Heaven, Hell and the Last Days, a small book big in evey way but length. And I should say at once that this "triptych," as Elkin calls it, composed of three sections entitled "The Comventional Wisdom," "the Bottom Line," and "the State of the Art," is the work of a master, a story eloquent in its gestures and amazing for the ease with which it moves from a liquor store hold-up in Minneapolis to the "wall-to-wall Wall" of damnation, from Heaven as a "theme park" to Hell as "the ultimate inner city." Half farce, half morality play, The Living End puts God himself on trial, the Lord faced off against the damned who in their countless number equal Everyman. Quite possibly only Statley Elkin possesses the exact blend of irreverence and care, of hard-core realism and fabulous invention, to have pulled this off.
Elkin knows that cliches are the substance of our lives, the coinage of human intercourse, the ways and means that hold our messy sleves 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. Long before he wrote The Franchiser, Elkin appropriated the notion of the franchise -- the idea that we Americans borrow our being from the staples of quotidian culture, the banal, the vulgar, the cartoonlike and means, all our packaged dreams and gaudy perks, accumulating thereby some concoction of cliches which, for each of us, constitutes our "story."
But if our stories are private they are in no way new. Our predicament, as a nation dedicated to exploring frontiers and starting fresh, is not only our rising sense of limits, but our fear of predictability, of stuckness, of old wine in old bottles, as if sameness were inherently ridiculous. And maybe it is.And maybe it is. Originality is at best displacement of the ordinary. Our most outlandish moments are the stuff of public domain. In The Bailbondsman, Elkin's protagonist judges the jailed, sizes up the risk of posting their bail, merely by listening to their stories. At the end of The Dick Gibson Show the MC of late-night talk program cannot bear to listen to yet another "story of my life": he knows by heart their silly pathos, their ludicrous outcomes, the garbled grief of options foreclosed.
Something of this desperation, relieved by raucous humor, slips into The Living End, where Elkin takes on the ultimate cliche, death and the preposterous protocol of Hereafter. To see how the mighty are fallen, to bring high things low, is a comic ploy as old a Aristophanes, accomplished in Elkin's case by setting standard myths of immortality within the low-rent clutter of ordinary life. So the angel of death talks "like a cabbie with an out-of-town fare." The crowd around the Lord's throne looks like the snapshot of a summit conference. Christ and his Dad don't get along, and the Virgin Mother never liked sex in the first place. As for sudden death, "all that wrath, those terrible swift sword arrangements, that's the M.O. of God Himself!"
And of course Hell flames and the danned howl, only -- only this time someone suggests that they howl in unison, that they begin a countdown, that they pick up their blazing guts and start addressing their torment directly to their Maker, not in lament or petition, but in imprecation and demand for answers. God likewise feels the need to justify His ways to man. "For openers," He roars, "I made the heavens and the earth; Were you there when I laid the foundations of the firmament? When I . . ." Ellerbee, a good man killed in his liquor store and told by Saint Peter to "go to Hell," cuts in on God's rant and speaks out in an attitude which in some sense underlies the entire book and which elsewhere Elkin describes as a feeling "not of rage but of rage cornered, its energy turned to reason":
"An explanation," he cried out, "an explanation! . . . I wasn't around when You elected the affinities. I wasn't there when You shaped s-t and fashioned cancer. Were You there when I loved my neighbors as myself? When I never stole or bore false witness? I don't say when I never killed but when I never even raised a hand or pointed a finger in anger? Where were You when I picked up checks and popped for drinks all round? When I shelled out for charity and voted Yes on the bond issues? So no Job job, no nature in tooth and claw, please. An explanation!"
The damned are fed up and so is God. "Because I never found My audience," He grumbles over and over, as if that were an answer, and maybe it is. When in the book's last pages God is finally pressed to account for Creation, to say why there is Something rather than Nothing, He comes up with this: "Because it makes a better story is why." Ridiculous as that sounds, is it not at least plausible? An isn't that the novelist's answer, in fact the human answer, as well -- all the meanings we invent and expand to cover the barrennes of the cliches by which we live?
There is a kind of vulgate glory to Stanley Elkin's prose, and much of the power of The Living End depends on how things are worded. Elkin is the magister ludi american vernacular, and for sheer stylistic brilliance no other writer can top him. The American novelist he most resembles is Nathanael West, but whereas West allowed us to feel superior to life's lunacy through savage irony, Elkin refuses us this distance, this illusion. And unlike others of his generation, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis for example, Elkin does not identify with the laughter of the gods, he does not dissociate himself from the human spectacle by taking out a frachise 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. CAPTION: Picture, Photo of Stanley Elkin by Debra Bailin