THE RABBI OF LUD By Stanley Elkin Scribners. 277 pp. $17.95 THE SIX-YEAR-OLD MAN By Stanley Elkin Bamberger Books. 131 pp. $10
ABOUT STANLEY ELKIN three things must be said, over and over: he's a virtuoso of voice; he wants to be a comedian, a divine one at that; and he wants to be read as what he also is, a Jew, and proud.
Initial responses to these assertions go as follows. One: Voice is Elkin's big gift (gab included), marking him out as one of the main throats in fiction; not an impersonator like your run-of-the-mill novelist trying to do the people in all kinds of differently shaded tones, but being always, as much as possible, his own outrageous self and inflicting his special noise upon us until we die.
Two: he is a comedian, or rather several comedians, all very much of the stand-up sort, not averse to larding jokes into the text (the effect is roughly that of Buddy Hackett interrupting Mahler). The problem here is that, while tragedy is something you can't miss, comedy is open to question. Tragedy's objective, comedy's not. And Elkin's comedy tends to be somewhat specialized because (three) he's Jewish.
Sure, Gentile readers will pick up, at worst, a lot of Yiddish and some highly attuned emotional skepticism about pain, lust and death. Elkin often sounds like the roue' of longsuffering, the barker of oiled exasperation, and he wants to sound so in a Jewish way, which is to say he's worldly but histrionic with it.
The voice heard throughout this novel is that of Jerry Goldkorn, formerly chief rabbi of the Alaskan Pipeline, now rabbi of a town in New Jersey notable for being flanked by two cemeteries. Goldkorn is the proprietor of his own death farm, whose holy resonances never escape him, sometimes driving him to heights of rhetorical ingenuity it must have pleased Elkin to scale. In the following, for instance, Goldkorn is talking to Sal the Barber of Lud, who also shaves the dead:
"So we talked about our mutual trade, or Sal talked while I soaked in his warm, soft, soapy water, between us encompassing just about all there was to say about death, Sal speaking up for the long term metabolisms, those gone-gray-overnight details of canceled flesh, rhapsodies of death gossip, intimate as singing -- gore, juice -- a little saliva, Sal said, always lay puddled under the tongue -- life's lymphs and ichors and gassy residuals, the finger and toenail legacies -- the thin, keratinous plates lengthening, thickening, curling like the horns of kudu -- matter's fabulous displacements, lividity, and all the other evidences from death's black boxes. Pacemakers, implanted in the chest, Sal reminded me on the morning of my manicure, went on tick tick ticking for years."
This is Elkin's magniloquent voice, the one in which he dominates the character whose voice he's making use of, and I wish he used it more often, as distinct from what one might call the voice of the "offshore yeshiva" -- "I'm no Graham Greene rabbi, I never was. I don't burn out so easy." It is in this voice that he confides "I'm nuts about my wife . . . The Creator has got to be at least part pornographer" and recounts the tale about Mengele's being buried in Lud "under the guise of a Morris Feldman, a hat salesman from Garden City, Long Island." I can see that Elkin wants to do both things, and many others besides, but (if you want to live a dangerous prose life) do you want to be force-fed skim when cream is within easy reach?
Behind the busily obvious voice that tells us about Connie, Goldkorn's daughter and "Lud's only living child," who lives on first-name terms with the gravediggers and yearns just to go away, there's another novel trying to get out: a novel like an ontological roar, in which the sexton-rabbi looms for his own appraisal, absurder than funny, wondering if a man is heavier when he has an erection (surely not, since tumescence burns mass, does it not?). Goldkorn with his gob full of pyritic one-liners wears his welcome out, but Goldkorn the raving fantasist who seems to be trying to get God's and not the reader's attention is pure gold, sly sedulous observer that his maker makes him. If you want plot, you will find it a-plenty as Connie begins to run riot, having Christian visions -- saints and Virgins enough to bring down upon Rabbi Goldkorn and his Shelley the full onslaught of the media, the classy Newark Star-Ledger included. Goldkorn goes sniffing after Joan Cohen, a woman addicted to camouflage-colored tweeds. Connie goes off to Chicago to grow up and comes home deflowered, talking about moisturizers and eyeliner, a normalized honey who has swapped gravediggers for cosmeticians. The funniest part, however, is back in Alaska, when the rabbi survives an air crash, or rather a forced landing into trees, but not before Elkin has rammed into the pilot's unresisting mouth a cumbersome voluntary of aviation jargon; I guess he found an aviation book and just shoveled it in from there. Throughout one is aware of Elkin in his own right perhaps wishing he didn't have to masquerade as a rabbi or a pilot, or as any of these other weirdos, but just let his wit and eloquence flow. I wish so too.
If you have read The Rabbi of Lud and then turn to The Six-Year-Old Man, an unproduced screenplay that Elkin wrote in 1966, you hear the rabbi's voice all over again in the introduction, going on about comedy and its logic, and how screenplay writing teaches you to plot: "the close cause-and-effectness of fiction, its obligatory, mandatory logic, all its if-this-goes here-then-that-goes-there." It would have been interesting to have more along these lines. The play itself seems dated (Elkin says so too), and the main idea -- in Elkin's own words, "Paul's never stayed by himself before, and when he's abandoned by his terrified baby sitter he's so terrified on his own behalf he's willing to undertake his dreadful odyssey, and go in the dark to look for his parents" -- is a milder one than that animating The Rabbi of Lud. As the introduction proves, Elkin should do more autobiography.
Paul West's most recent books are "Rat Man of Paris" and "Sheer Fiction," a collection of essays.