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Sam Lipsyte on Elkin's Comic 'Living End'

<strong>Scroll down</strong> to read the opening of "The Living End."
Scroll down to read the opening of "The Living End."

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This summer, NPR.org talks with authors about their favorite buttonhole books in the weekly series "You Must Read This."

The Living End is the great comic writer Stanley Elkin's meditation on last things. Like Dante's Divine Comedy, it is a triptych portraying divine intentions toward lowly humans -- but one very much skewed to human-scaled incongruities and comic misunderstandings.

First, it relates the eternal damnation of a deeply kind and well-meaning liquor store owner, Ellerbee, on what seem very much to be trumped-up charges. Then, Elkin moves on to the accidental banishment of Ladlehaus, one of Ellerbee's assailants, from the quarters of Hell up to a purgatorial burial plot outside a St. Paul high school sports stadium.

In the grand finale, Elkin describes the equally accidental death and damnation of Quiz, the Everyman groundskeeper who tends the Ladlehaus plot, which leads in turn to a distressingly random day of reckoning. Behind all this shaggy-dog spiritual intrigue is God -- like all Elkin characters, a continually mugging, intensely verbal, and deeply sympathetic ne'er do well.

Sam Lipsyte, the author of the recent comic novels Home Land and The Subject Steve, discusses Stanley Elkin's vision of life, the universe and everything.

Q. How did it begin, with you and The Living End?

A. The Living End was the first Elkin book I read, back when I was in college. It really floored me -- what he was doing with his sentences, with rhythm, with cadence. The way he could charge ordinary speech, not capture it but transform it, was simply astonishing. I loved it when Ellerbee calls on God towards the end of the first section: "'Lord God of Ambush and Unconditional Surrender,' he prayed, 'Power Play God of Judo Leverage...'" And he goes on like that, finding new names for God from the shards of the often dead language flying all around us. I also loved how he made verbs of everything -- people get "Alcatraz'd" and "dybbuk'd." It's a wonderful device, or maybe tic, you find in most of his books.

Q. And it goes right up to the source of all creation -- Elkin's God is a bit like a sad-sack standup comic, whose chief indictment of humanity is its failure to get his material; "I never found my audience," he laments. But Elkin manages to make it into a dead-serious interpretation of theology.

A. Yes, God's speech about never finding his audience is about as succinct a theological explanation as I've ever read. I recently related it to an ancient Judaism scholar from Stanford and his eyes bugged a little. He'd been discussing interpretations of the destruction of the Tower of Babel and this seemed to fit right in.

Q. So much of The Living End is a vivid rendering of the earthly experience of pain, transposed into the eternal realm of Hell. How much of that arises from Elkin's own experience suffering the painful ravages of multiple sclerosis?

A. I know a young writer with MS who told me he wants to make a bracelet for himself that says WWSED? (What Would Stanley Elkin Do?). I saw Elkin read when his MS was clearly getting the better of him. He was in a wheelchair and you could tell he was in pain. He was tremendous -- hilarious, tender, profound. I think the source of his humor, as is the case of all deep humor, was his acknowledgment of our shared curse, our consciousness of sickness and death, but nobody really plumbed the experience of having a body quite like Elkin, or celebrated its degradations so beautifully. Because there is a lot of joy there. And a great part of the joy is that though we are just meat we can still joke and sing about that fact. We have language, thought. I guess this is what Western philosophy wrestled with all those years, but Elkin distills the condition in a uniquely funny and poetic manner.

Q. The thing that carries all this antic material beyond mere parody for me is Elkin's assured placement of homely narrative details in the midst of eternal reckonings. He describes God, on a sojourn to Hell, as sporting "a carefully tailored summer suit like a pediatrician in a small town" or how the interred exile from Hell, Ladlehaus, desperately wants to hear about what a high school kid thinks of a comic book.

A. The details, the small touches, of course, are everything. The universal grows out of the particular, the tiny. "Big Themes" are often present in great fiction, but there's a very good chance the writer didn't begin with them, or even pay that much attention to them as he or she was making a world. God rests in the details, goes the old saying, and I guess it's more true in this novel than in most. This book begins with a description of Ellerbee's small-time financial woes, and that's what's so wonderful. The portal to the major questions of the last few thousand years is a guy who keeps losing money to vending machines and other people's furniture. Structurally it feels like a joke set-up. And of course there is the last sentence of the book -- the punch line millions eagerly await.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Lehmann
Chris Lehman is a fomer deputy editor and regular reviewer for the Washington Post Book World. He is now an editor at Congressional Quarterly and covers national politics for the New York Observer. He is the author of Revolt of the Masscult.