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The Good of A Bad Man

How Stanley Elkin hit his stride

Sarah Almond
July 29, 2008

By the time of his death in 1995, Stanley Elkin had written nine novels, two collections of short stories, six novellas, and one amusingly crotchety collection of essays. He had twice won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and had been nominated for a National Book Award. Obituaries focused on his better known and better received later novels, such as The Magic Kingdom and George Mills, noting a mastery of language only hinted at in his more conventional early work.

But one of Elkin’s earlier novels, which escaped the notice of his posthumous critics and has gone unread by all but the most ardent of fans, deserves more widespread attention. Published in 1967, A Bad Man shows the author delving into the stylistic experimentation that would come to be his trademark. He began to move away from literary realism—the more conventional settings and plots that marked, for example, his 1965 short story collection Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers—and the rational worldview he felt it represented. Perhaps as a result, A Bad Man is the first of Elkin’s novels to fully illustrate his pessimistic outlook: a refusal to embrace the hope, held by many of his peers in a crowded Jewish American literary field, that postwar society could correct the inexplicable wrongs of the past.

The novel’s opening is immediate and engaging. Leo Feldman, a wealthy department store owner in an unnamed Midwestern town, is arrested within the first few paragraphs.

“The jig is up!” cries an armed man, rushing into Feldman’s basement offices.

“I’m afraid I shan’t require your services for a while, Miss Lane,” Feldman shouts to his secretary.

His crime? Satisfying, from the lower depths of his store, his customers’ darkest desires: drugs, abortions, prostitutes.

Though he provides these services free of charge, Feldman is wrongly charged with bribery. Convicted mere sentences later, he has begun his journey to the penitentiary by the book’s second page.

The rest of the novel is set within the confines of a surreal penitentiary where the rules of engagement are constantly being revised and the “bad men”—Feldman among their ranks—are humiliated, forced to don clownlike, oversized mockeries of the clothes they wore prior to their convictions. Though Feldman is only sentenced to a year, he quickly discovers a Kafkaesque system of checks and balances that steadily tacks days onto his sentence. The master of this incomprehensible system is the aptly named Warden Fisher, a self-proclaimed “fisher of bad men” who takes an immediate dislike to his new prisoner, berating him for, among other things, his Jewishness: “What are you in our culture? A mimic. A spade in a tux at a function in Harlem.” Feldman responds to the warden’s taunts with increasingly antic behavior, dismantling the moral hierarchy of the prison with a gusto worthy of the Marx Brothers.

Feldman’s frequent clashes with Fisher—along with flashbacks to the merchant’s childhood and life pre-incarceration—reveal him as a narcissist, unable to control his deepest impulses, consumed by mercantilism and cruelty. In one telling scene, Feldman savagely beats a lumpish inmate in the shower. In another, a teenage Feldman sells his dead father’s body for 15 dollars. Elkin makes little attempt to find in the brutish desires of his protagonist any larger meaning. Redemption—of Feldman, the warden who controls him, or society at large—is not forthcoming in A Bad Man. “The novel,” Elkin told Thomas Leclair in a 1976 Paris Review interview, “is generally a kind of Christian device where people who are good get their just rewards and people who are bad are punished. I don’t believe that this is the case in life.”

Though real life was, perhaps, marginally kinder to Elkin than his decidedly satirical fiction might suggest, even his most fantastical novels contain traces of autobiography. A Bad Man is no exception. Elkin told Leclair that “there [is] something of [my] father” in both Feldman and his ragman father, Isidore. The author additionally credited his father Philip Elkin, a “master salesman” and “super pitchman” who traveled the Midwest selling costume jewelry, as a source of his verbose writing style.

Feldman’s father—himself a traveling salesman—more clearly embodies Elkin’s ideas about identity and artifice than any other character in A Bad Man. “Not ‘rags,’ not ‘old clothes,’” Isidore warns his young son, teaching him the ragman’s call. “What are you, an announcer on the radio? You’re in the street! Say ‘regs, all cloze.’ Shout it. Sing it. I want to hear steerage, Ellis Island in that throat. . . . What, you never saw the Statue of Liberty through the fringes of a prayer shawl?”

Of course, Feldman never traveled steerage; he never arrived at Ellis Island. He isn’t technically Jewish. Within the first fifty pages of A Bad Man, Isidore has admitted as much to his son: “Your mother was a gentile and one of my best customers. I laid her in my first wagon by pots and by pans and you were born and she died.” There’s an irony in Elkin’s decision to make his most fully Jewish character, a character who is teased and punished for his religion, a half-Jew. In Elkin’s world, nothing is as it seems, and this desire to toy with the perceptions of his audience underscores his commitment to representing a deeply irrational world.

Josh Greenfeld, reviewing A Bad Man in The New York Times, described the novel’s style as “one of expansive, glib Jewish American schizophrenia,” noting Elkin’s fascination with “the absurdist metaphor that the world is winless.” Given his imaginative prose and borscht-belt sarcasm, reviewers frequently compared him to black humorists such as Nathanael West, Bellow, and Mailer.

Elkin might have had another Jewish American writer in mind, however, as he was finishing up A Bad Man. Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, best seller and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for 1966, had been published just a year earlier. Based on an actual case, Malamud’s novel, like Elkin’s, tells the story of a wrongfully imprisoned Jew: Yakov Bok, a handyman living in Czarist Russia, who is accused of murdering a young Christian boy and draining his blood for ritual use. Locked up for years as he awaits trial, Bok refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, hoping for the day when he will be allowed to defend himself in a court of law. The novel was an enormous critical and popular success, hailed as harrowing and brilliant.

There was at least one dissenting opinion, however. In the Spring 1967 issue of The Massachusetts Review, while still at work on A Bad Man, Elkin critiqued Malamud’s masterpiece as “bringing about some telling stasis. . . . The Fixer is immensely moving, but this quality is at once its supreme achievement and part of its downfall.” Even Malamud’s most ardent supporters had noted the author’s frequent use of symbolism—in The Fixer as well as past works like The Assistant—to illustrate the moral implications of Jewishness. Robert Alter, in a 1966 Commentary review, declared The Fixer “Malamud’s most powerful novel,” but also conceded that “to be a Jew in this novel does imply a general moral stance” and that, “assign[ing] a set of abstact values” to Bok’s situation may result in a connection that “strike[s] the reader as arbitrary.” For Elkin, such allusions were too predictable. “It’s always seemed to me that the best kind of book is the open-ended book where anything can happen,” he later told Peter Bailey in an interview for Review of Contemporary Fiction. “I hate a book which has one premise and the writer sticks to that premise so tightly that . . . the reader has no room to breathe.”

A Bad Man leaves plenty of room for the reader to breathe—perhaps too much. Feldman’s numerous prison misadventures verge on the picaresque, and Elkin’s lengthy sentences and labyrinthine rhetoric threaten, at times, to collapse in on themselves. Throughout the novel, Feldman’s character remains fluid, a far cry from Malamud’s symbolic Jew. To Warden Fisher, he feigns a stab at rehabilitation—attempting to act “ordinary,” at the Warden’s request—while his mind races with paranoid inner monologues and far-fetched fears. He effortlessly sells cases of guava soda and shoe trees to his fellow inmates in the prison canteen, even as he muses over the items’ uselessness. Perhaps as a response to The Fixer’s moral stance, Elkin goes so far as to bring Feldman’s very Jewishness into question.

Like his contemporaries, Elkin was concerned with identity in an increasingly irrational and haphazard world. What sets him apart in A Bad Man, however, is his insistence on a character as inconstant as his surroundings. Identity becomes artifice, a costume donned as easily as the mockery of a suit the prison’s “bad men” are forced to wear. Rather than attempt to change a world that the author himself described as “winless,” Feldman—as would the many Elkin protagonists to follow—chooses instead to adapt. It is a combative stance, one that would permanently set the writer apart from his peers.

Nevertheless, like Malamud’s Jewish everyman, Feldman endures much suffering: “He learned at last, then, that his punishment . . . was to be himself. It was ridiculous. How could he be Feldman if there was no one for him to be Feldman to?”