“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Of the late Stanley Elkin’s nine novels, six novellas, and two collections of short stories, perhaps the least remembered is his 1967 novel, A Bad Man. In the first few pages, department store owner Leo Feldman is arrested, wrongly charged with bribery, and incarcerated. But unlike in Kafka, where Joseph K. is arrested “without having done anything wrong,” Elkin’s novel functions as a manifestation of his own pessimism: Leo Feldman is revealed to be far from a model citizen, and, crushingly, redemption is nowhere to be found within the labyrinthine, constantly-changing prison system.
Sarah Almond wrote in 2008:
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.
Read The Good of A Bad Man, by Sarah Almond
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.