With a wickedly witty touch, Elkin’s essays takes readers on a tour of American life in the 20th century.
Stanley Elkin was one of our great American writers. “A divine exploiter of the idiocies and intricacies of our language,” as John Irving put it, and nowhere is that more clear than this collection of essays, which find Elkin wresting hilarity and heartbreak from the most unlikely of sources.
Why does famed novelist Elkin hoard some 5000 bars of soap stolen from hotels, motels and airlines? Because soap to him represents a symbolic way to stave off death, ``anal greed,'' a link to his traveling-salesman father who filched soap from hotel rooms. These hyperconversational, confessional essays, previously published in Esquire , Harper's , etc., provide moments of pure glee (``California must be the quality-time capital of the world''). Bemused voyeur in the funhouse of American culture, Elkin makes laceratingly funny observations on horse races, Academy Awards ceremonies, modern dance and deliberately offensive ``shock radio'' announcers. Each idiosyncratic piece careens from topic to topic, infused with deadly wit and stunning sentences (``Palm trees . . . are only this sort of exposed, visible root system, essentially comic, topsy, turvying nature''). In love with words and life, Elkin taps pure gold in contemplating the terrors and compensations of middle age, and summer's ``dangerously dropped guard.'' The literary essays are full of provocations, as when he muses ``Form . . . creates cliche,'' and defines the novel by observing that ``all books are the Book of Job , high moral tests and tasks set in fairy tales.''