Sam Lipsyte on Elkin's Comic 'Living End'

'The Living End' cover

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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."

Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte is the author of the short story collection Venus Drive, relating the romantic misadventures of aging slacker dudes. He is also the author of the 2002 novel The Subject Steve, which plied a warped vision of immortality in the corporate-sponsored Information Age, and Home Land, a 2004 comic tour de force satirizing everything from high-school revenge fantasies to the American gospel of success, all from the wilds of northern New Jersey.

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.

Excerpt: 'The Living End'

Ellerbee had been having a bad time of it. He’d had financial reversals. Change would slip out of his pockets and slide down into the crevices of other people’s furniture. He dropped deposit bottles and lost money in pay phones and vending machines. He overtipped in dark taxicabs. He had many such financial reversals. He was stuck with Super Bowl tickets when he was suddenly called out of town and with theater and opera tickets when the ice was too slick to move his car out of his driveway. But all this was small potatoes. His portfolio was a disgrace. He had gotten into mutual funds at the wrong time and out at a worse. His house, appraised for tax purposes at many thousands of dollars below its replacement cost, burned down, and recently his once flourishing liquor store, one of the largest in Minneapolis, had drawn the attention of burly, hopped-up and armed deprivators, ski-masked, head-stockinged. Two of his clerks had been shot, one killed, the other crippled and brain damaged, during the most recent visitation by these marauders, and Ellerbee, feeling a sense of responsibility, took it upon himself to support his clerks’ families. His wife reproached him for this, which led to bad feelings between them.

“Weren’t they insured?”

“I don’t know, May. I suppose they had some insurance but how much could it have been? One was just a kid out of college.”

“Whatshisname, the vegetable.”

“Harold, May.”

“What about whosis? He was no kid out of college.”

“George died protecting my store, May.”

“Some protection. The black bastards got away with over fourteen hundred bucks.” When the police called to tell him of the very first robbery, May had asked if the men had been black. It hurt Ellerbee that this should have been her first question. “Who’s going to protect you? The insurance companies redlined that lousy neighborhood a year ago. We won’t get a penny.”

“I’m selling the store, May. I can’t afford to run it anymore.”

“Selling? Who’d buy it? Selling!”

“I’ll see what I can get for it,” Ellerbee said.

“Social Security pays them benefits,” May said, picking up their quarrel again the next day. “Social Security pays up to the time the kids are eighteen years old, and they give to the widow, too. Who do you think you are, anyway? We lose a house and have to move into one not half as good because it’s all we can afford, and you want to keep on paying the salaries not only of two people who no longer work for you, but to pay them out of a business that you mean to sell! Let Social Security handle it.”

Ellerbee, who had looked into it, answered May. “Harold started with me this year. Social Security pays according to what you’ve put into the system. Dorothy won’t get three hundred a month, May. And George’s girl is twenty. Evelyn won’t even get that much.”

“Idealist,” May said. “Martyr.”

“Leave off, will you, May? I’m responsible. I’m under an obligation.”

“Responsible, under an obligation!”

“Indirectly. God damn it, yes. Indirectly. They worked for me, didn’t they? It’s a combat zone down there. I should have had security guards around the clock.”

“Where are you going to get all this money? We’ve had financial reversals. You’re selling the store. Where’s this money coming from to support three families?”

“We’ll get it.”

We’ll get it? There’s no we’ll about it, Mister. You’ll. The stocks are in joint tenancy. You can’t touch them, and I’m not signing a thing. Not a penny comes out of my mouth or off my back.”

“All right, May,” Ellerbee said. “I’ll get it.”

In fact Ellerbee had a buyer in mind—a syndicate that specialized in buying up businesses in decaying neighborhoods—liquor and drugstores, small groceries—and then put in ex-convicts as personnel, Green Berets from Vietnam, off-duty policemen, experts in the martial arts. Once the word was out, no one ever attempted to rob these places. The syndicate hiked the price of each item at least 20 percent—and got it. Ellerbee was fascinated and appalled by their strong-arm tactics. Indeed he more than a little suspected that it was the syndicate itself which had been robbing him—all three times his store had been held up he had not been in it—to inspire him to sell, perhaps.

“We read about your trouble in the paper,” Mr. Davis, the lawyer for the syndicate, had told him on the occasion of his first robbery. The thieves had gotten away with $300 and there was a four-line notice on the inside pages. “Terrible,” he said, “terrible. A fine old neighborhood like this one. And it’s the same all over America today. Everywhere it’s the same story. Even in Kansas, even in Utah. They shoot you with bullets, they take your property. Terrible. The people I represent have the know-how to run businesses like yours in the spoiled neighborhoods.” And then he had been offered a ridiculous price for his store and his stock. Of course he turned it down. When he was robbed a second time, the lawyer didn’t even bother to come in person. “Terrible. Terrible,” he said. “Whoever said lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place was talking through his hat. I’m authorized to offer you ten thousand less than last time.” Ellerbee hung up on him.

Now, after his clerks had been shot, it was Ellerbee who called the lawyer. “Awful,” the lawyer said. “Outrageous. A merchant shouldn’t have to sit still for such things in a democracy.”

They gave him even less than the insurance people had given him for his underappraised home. Ellerbee accepted, but decided it was time he at least hint to Davis that he knew what was going on. “I’m selling,” he said, “because I don’t want anyone else to die.”

“Wonderful,” Davis said, “wonderful. There should be more Americans like you.

He deposited the money he got from the syndicate in a separate account so that his wife would have no claims on it and now, while he had no business to go to, he was able to spend more time in the hospital visiting Harold.

“How’s Hal today, Mrs. Register?” he asked when he came into the room where the mindless quadriplegic was being cared for. Dorothy Register was a red-haired young woman in her early twenties. Ellerbee felt so terrible about what had happened, so guilty, that he had difficulty talking to her. He knew it would be impossible to visit Harold if he was going to run into his wife when he did so. It was for this reason, too, that he sent the checks rather than drop them off at the apartment, much as he wanted to see Hal’s young son, Harold Jr., in order to reassure the child that there was still a man around to take care of the boy and his young mother.

“Oh, Mr. Ellerbee,” the woman wept. Harold seemed to smile at them through his brain damage.

“Please, Mrs. Register,” said Ellerbee. “Harold shouldn’t see you like this.”

“Him? He doesn’t understand a thing. You don’t understand a thing, do you?” she said, turning on her husband sharply. When she made a move to poke at his eyes with a fork he didn’t even blink. “Oh, Mr. Ellerbee,” she said, turning away from her husband, “that’s not the man I married. It’s awful, but I don’t feel anything for him. The only reason I come is that the doctors say I cheer him up. Though I can’t see how. He smiles that way at his bedpan.”

“Please, Mrs. Register,” Ellerbee said softly. “You’ve got to be strong. There’s little Hal.”

“I know,” she moaned, “I know.” She wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffed and tossed her hair in a funny little way she had which Ellerbee found appealing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ve been very kind. I don’t know what I would have done, what we would have done. I can’t even thank you,” she said helplessly.

“Oh don’t think about it, there’s no need,” Ellerbee said quickly. “I’m not doing any more for you than I am for George Lesefario’s widow.” It was not a boast. Ellerbee had mentioned the older woman because he didn’t want Mrs. Register to feel compromised. “It’s company policy when these things happen,” he said gruffly.

Dorothy Register nodded. “I heard,” she said, “that you sold your store.”

He hastened to reassure her. “Oh now listen,” Ellerbee said, “you mustn’t give that a thought. The checks will continue. I’m getting another store. In a very lovely neighborhood. Near where we used to live before our house burned down.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. I should be hearing about my loan any time now. I’ll probably be in the new place before the month is out. Well,” he said, “speaking of which, I’d better get going. There are some fixtures I’m supposed to look at at the Wine and Spirits Mart.” He waved to Harold.

“Mr. Ellerbee?”

“Mrs. Register?”

The tall redhead came close to him and put her hands on his shoulders. She made that funny little gesture with her hair again and Ellerbee almost died. She was about his own height and leaned forward and kissed him on the mouth. Her fingernails grazed the back of his neck. Tears came to Ellerbee’s eyes and he turned away from her gently. He hoped she hadn’t seen the small lump in his trousers. He said goodbye with his back to her.

Excerpted from The Living End by Stanley Elkin. Copyright © 1979, Stanley Elkin. Reprinted by permission of Dalkey Archive Press. All rights reserved.

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