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Word Patriots

Mark Seinfelt

Word Patriots – William Gass remembers Stanley Elkin

The late Stanley Elkin was a two-time recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author of more than a dozen novels and short-story collections, including “A Bad Man,” “George Mills,” “The Rabbi of Lud” and “Mrs. Ted Bliss,” he is recognized for his humorous and satirical fiction and for the stylistic virtuosity of his ornately wrought prose. 1964 saw the publication of his first novel “Boswell: A Modern Comedy,” which relates the misfortunes of a death haunted man who lives off the reflected celebrity and fame of others, this Boswell’s Johnson a professional wrestler known as the Grim Reaper. Elkin’s second novel “A Bad Man” explores the human capacity for suffering and depicts both the absurdity and the regimentation of prison life. It established Elkin as “one of the flashiest and most exciting comic talents in view,” according to the New York Times Book Review. Department store-owner Leo Feldman’s business is illicit wish-fulfillment, but on the novel’s very first page the jig is up, and Feldman finds himself on the way to stir. Life’s manifold indignities and the human capacity for getting things wrong are subjects Elkin returns to again and again in his subsequent books. He also increasingly treats on life’s fragility. “The Franchiser” tells the tale of traveling businessman Ben Flesh who by the end of the novel creates a nationwide empire of franchises but whose body is ravaged and wracked by multiple sclerosis. “Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom” follows a group of doomed, terminally ill children on an outing to Disney World and his late novella “Her Sense of Timing” concerns a wheelchair-bound professor abandoned by his wife. As the “Cyclopedia of World Authors” points out, Elkin was an author of many facets and had “the distinction of multiple tenancy in some of the most compelling camps of contemporary fiction: He is categorized along with writers such as Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth as a prominent contributor to the postwar Jewish American renaissance; he is often compared with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Bruce Jay Friedman, and other so-called black humorists; and he was allied with Robert Coover, William Gass, and John Hawkes by virtue of his self-conscious craftsmanship and postrealist sensibilities .” My guest this week is William H. Gass, a lifelong friend of Stanley Elkin and a fellow faculty member at Washington University in Saint Louis. If you would like to know more about my books, please visit my website: See also the Amazon Stanley Elkin page: and also the Amazon page for “Life Sentences”: