What I’m Reading: Stanley Elkin – Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers

Sometimes an author who is very obviously right up your alley inexplicably manages to slip underneath your radar, and when you discover him years later you find yourself faced with a huge backlist and gnashing your teeth that you did not come across this astonishing body of work earlier. Stanley Elkin is just such a case for me; by all rights, I should have stumbled over him in the early to mid eighties when I was discovering contemporary American literature for myself and started reading the likes of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Robert Coover. Instead, I first enountered him as late as 2011 through a series of posts on one of the blogs I follow.

Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & CriersI read Boswell, Stanley Elkin’s first novel, a few months back (it was actually the last novel I read before I started my book diary on this blog), and while I liked it, I had some difficulties seeing why everyone kept saying that it was so funny. No such problem with Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers, Elkin’s first collection of stories (some of which predate Boswell) which had me laughing out loud a lot, even – or, coming to think about it, in particular – in places where the subject matter of the story did not appear to lend itself to humour at all.

This starts off with the title story, about a store owner who returns to work after the death of his son – the story manages to be at the same time very funny, when the protagonist’s paranoia runs rampant, suspecting everyone and their grandmother of robbing him blind, and heartbreakingly sad, the portrait of a man whose implicit trust in the benevolence of life has been shattered and who tries to carry on in the face of despair.

“Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers” is, like most of the nine stories in this collection and as Stanley Elkin himself remarks upon in his Preface to the 1990 edition, “right bang smack dab in the middle of realism,” something he’d outgrow later, and which is already apparent in some of the stories here, and it is certainly no coincidence that those tend to be the best of the lot. The  volume’s stories also establishes the mood for what is to come, it’s distinctive interweaving of farce and tragedy can be found  – to a varying degree and played out in different ways – in all of the following stories.

My personal favourite is “Poetics for Bullies,” a story whose driving, insistent rhythm grabs you at your jacket lapels right from the start and then pushes and pummels you relentlessly for the entire duration of its 20 pages. There is something very Rabelaisian about it (and, I suspect, about Elkin’s writing in general), in the larger-than-life characters, the exuberance of the writing and the way even the apparently most stable conventions and preconceptions are tumbling and turned topsy-turvy. In the case of this particular story we end up thoroughly disliking the character who is a shining example of pretty much every virtue imaginable and rooting for his antagonist, a low-life bully named Push, even wondering if bullies might not indeed be fulfulling a very useful social function… “Poetics for Bullies” is brilliant on every level and alone worth getting this collection. And while none of the other stories is quite as good, there is no really weak story here either, I’m really looking forward to reading more from Stanley Elkin.

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