THE HEROES (or antiheroes) of Stanley Elkin's novels have Anglo- Saxon names like Dick Gibson, James Boswell, and George Mills, but once they start to talk any traces of British reserve disappear. And how they love to talk! Once an Elkin character starts a spiel, in fact, there is no stopping him. Not that anyone would want to -- the monologues, even those of the shaggy-dog variety, are ebullient, funny, and filled with insights about the sad intricacy of things in this "griefhouse" we inhabit.
Who is this compulsive storyteller, this Niagara of words? If you are not yet acquainted with him you are certainly not alone -- Elkin has always been a writer's writer, admired by his fellow craftsmen but undiscovered, for the most part, by a wider public. This obscurity persists even though he has been steadily turning out stories and novels for 25 years, work such as The Dick Gibson Show (about a peripatetic radio announcer), A Bad Man (about the physics of personality), and Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (about, well, everything in the world). Blending farce and pathos, comedy and disintegration, he contrives, in book after book, to pluck laughter from despair. And he does so in some of the richest prose being written today.
A professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, Elkin has a Ph.D. in literature; that his dissertation was on William Faulkner somehow makes sense. The true hero of George Mills, in fact, as in The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, and a few other central novels of this century, is the English language. This is virtuoso writing, replete with verbal pyrotechnics, literary parodies and allusions, puns, calculated anachronisms, epic catalogues, and images as gorgeous as they are unexpected. When Elkin chose fiction as his medium the world lost a robust lyric poet: his language is fresh, quirky, original; his powers of invention seemingly inexhaustible. For all its air of improvisation, the book is written, and readers will want to move slowly through its more than 500 pages, savoring every rhetorical flourish.
A master of comic effects, Elkin is also our laureate of lamentation. Among the dominant motifs in his new book -- as in the earlier work -- are pain, isolation, missed opportunities, and the fear of death. "No one loved me enough, and I never had all the shrimp I could eat." The speaker, who typically undercuts her complaint with an ironic jest, is Judith Grazer, dying of cancer in a Mexican laetrile clinic. Elkin's female characters tend to be shadowy, but Judith is a complex woman who meets her fate in a moving manner. The Mexican scenes, written with dark humor, are terrifying. One senses that Elkin has stared death in the eye and somehow found a language to annotate the encounter.
Judith's chauffeur-confidant is George Mills, a man whose veins run with blue- collar blood, whose fate it is to be second fiddle, one of nature's born shipping clerks. Unlike those who inherit royal prerogatives, a millennium of Millses find themselves cursed to servitude, unable to break free of their class. In a dazzling opening chapter we meet the founder of the line, a stable boy who accompanies "a sissy sir" on a hilarious pilgrimage. We encounter other historical Georges along the way, but the book's central character, the 42nd incarnation, is our contemporary, a St. Louis Everyman. George Mills, who takes what comes and who learns to live with what grace he has, should become a household name -- at least in households with books -- in the tradition of Sancho Panza, Leopold Bloom, and Rabbit Angstrom.
I will not attempt a synopsis of George's peregrinations in this thickly textured work. Let me simply say there is enough narrative invention here for several novels, and that the book, which takes place over a thousand-year period and in a number of settings, can be approached in several ways. Among other things, it resembles a collection of stories, the chapters having their own beginnings, middles, and ends. (I note that two sections have been excerpted in Playboy.) It is also a series of self-contained miniature essays, on such diverse subjects as faith healers and softball:
"Softball is a pitcher's medium, slow pitch especially. I thought the pitchers rich, or anyway leaders, privileged, gracious. They gave us our turn, per mitted us to stand beneath the big, de ceptive, graceful ball, shaking into our stance like dogs throwing off water, seeking purchase, hunching our shoul ders, planting our feet, hovering in gravity as the softball hovered in air. Neutral gents, those pitchers neither smiled when they struck us out nor frowned when we connected. Good sports acknowledging nothing, neither the hoots of their opponents nor the pepper encouragements of their mates. Captains of cool benevolence, trimmer than . . . all those swollen, sideburned others who were always talking." "All those swollen, sideburned others" -- a quintessential Elkin locution. He delights in archaic, slightly out-of-the way diction: "the scut-wake contrariety of the world," "choirs of asyncopatic, amatory, affricative, low-woodwind drone," "jolts of inexplicable swank." He also has an eye for the slightly out-of-the-way details of our sometimes inelegant civilization, things like mood rings, Sansabelt trousers, soap operas, telethons, meals-on-wheels, miniature NFL helmets. Elkin clearly is one on whom nothing, however silly, is lost.
His novel, though, is much more than a compendium of delectable phrases and cultural trivia. Elkin brings news (isn't that what "novel" means?) of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of envy, poverty, love, bereavement, and fear, of the logistics of power and servitude, of faith and grace. The work, his strongest yet, will certainly evoke some smiles of recognition, and it will break some hearts too. It is the sort of rare novel one wants to read over and over.
This summer Lance Morrow announced in a Time editorial that American writers are dispensable, that were Mailer, Updike, et al., to lapse into permanent silence, readers would suffer no great loss. Elkin, not surprisingly, was not mentioned -- nor was Wright Morris, another novelist who has never found the readership he merits. Morrow's hit list (or pogrom) included a couple of writers whose silence would not, in fact, depress me, but there were others whose work in progress I await with genuine impatience. Life would be much less rich without them.
Surely the prospect of no more exuberant and disturbing fiction from Elkin is unthinkable. He is one of our essential voices, and he deserves the widest possible audience. In a press release, his publishers suggest that George Mills may finally be his "breakthrough" book and liken it to The World According to Garp. The comparison doesn't do Elkin justice. He belongs in the company not of John Irving but of our great serious comedians, of Singer and Roth and Bellow. He's that good. CAPTION: Illustration, Caricuture of Stanley Elkin, Copyright (c) by David Levine