31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 2: “The Guest” by Stanley Elkin

May 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers

In the movie Scream, the film geek played by Jamie Kennedy tells one of the teenagers lined up for slaughter never to utter the words “I’ll be back” in a horror movie situation. “It’s a death sentence,” Kennedy’s character says. Similarly, when Stephen Feldman, one half of an upscale St. Louis couple, allows his old acquaintance Bertie to stay in his apartment while he and his wife, Norma, go on a two-week vacation, the reader is immediately put on notice by Feldman’s unknowing insouciance: “‘Certainly it’s all right,’ Feldman said. ‘What harm could you do?'”

What harm, indeed? Bertie is a hep-cat jazz trumpeter. He is also an addict and a drunk. Over the course of his stay in the Feldmans’ apartment, he destroys their furniture and Norma’s paintings, he masturbates twice daily in their bed, he drinks up all their liquor, and goes on an epic drug trip, complete with hallucinations of camel shit on the living room floor (what the mysterious substance actually is remains – mercifully – unspecified) and an ancient seer who provides Bertie the meaning of life, written in Chinese characters on his tongue. (Bertie telephones his friend Gimpel – long distance, of course – to let him know that he is the recipient of the true meaning of life. “‘Yeah?’ Gimpel said ‘Yeah? What’d it say? What’d it say?’ … ‘I forget,’ Bertie said and hung up.”)

Bertie cuts a gleeful swath of destruction through the Feldmans’ abode, all the while indulging in equal amounts of self-pity and ironic misapprehension. As an unrepentant hep-cat, the one thing Bertie can’t stand is squares, yet he deliberately searches for books such as The Egg and I and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies on the Feldmans’ bookshelves, because “the prose of a certain kind of bright housewife always made Bertie erotic.” He is unable to find either title, and settles for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which he observes “with only mild lasciviousness.” By contrast, he browses volumes by the Marquis de Sade and Henry Miller “desultorily.” Throughout, Bertie carries on imagined conversations with characters from his past, including people who have moved up in their station. (“I’ve found that when a man makes it to the Ivy League he tends to forget about old Bertie,” he tells Feldman.)

All of this is conveyed in jaunty, jazzy language that is typical of Elkin’s approach to fiction. Elkin was always less concerned with traditional notions of character and plot (although he pulled those off handily) than with language. In a Paris Review interview, Elkin specified what he most appreciated about fiction:

What I enjoy about fiction – the great gift of fiction – is that it gives language an opportunity to happen. What I am really interested in after personality are not philosophic ideas or abstractions or patterns, but this superb opportunity for language to take place.

There are some who would argue that the short fiction form is incapable of containing Elkin’s need for “language to take place.” Scott Hermanson, for instance, suggests that “Elkin’s short stories in Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers are finely crafted, but his is a style that needs the breadth, the expansion of the novel for his abundant voice to stretch to its fullest.” Hermanson might have a point. The short story traffics in concentration of language, whereas Elkin is interested in linguistic expansiveness. Still, he is able to find room in “The Guest” for several passages of bravura stylistic trills. Here, for example, is Bertie assessing his situation as a guest in the Feldman’s apartment:

He settled gradually, then, into restlessness. He knew, of course, that he had it always in his power to bring himself back up to the heights he had known in those wonderful first two days. He was satisfied, however, not to use this power, and thought of himself as a kind of soldier, alone, in a foxhole, in enemy territory, at night, at a bad time in the war, with one bullet in his pistol. Oddly he derived more pride (and comfort, and a queer security) from this single bullet than others might from whole cases of ammunition. It was his strategic bullet, the one he would use to get the big one, turn the tide, make the difference. The Feldmans would be away for two weeks. He would not waste his ammunition. Just as he divided the stale pizza, cherishing each piece as much for the satisfaction he took from possessing it during a time of emergency as for any sustenance it offered, so he enjoyed his knowledge that at any time he could recoup his vanishing spirits. He shared with the squares (“Use their own weapons to beat them, Bertie.”) a special pride in adversity, in having to do without, in having to expose whatever was left of his character to the narrower straits. It was strange, Bertie thought seriously, it was the paradox of the world and an institutional insight that might have come right out of the mouth of that slut in Dallas, but the most peculiar aspect of the squares wasn’t their lack of imagination or their blind bad taste, but their ability, like the wildest fanatics, like the furthest out of the furthest out, to cling to the illogical, finally untenable notion that they must have and have in order to live, at the same time that they realized that it was better not to have. What seemed so grand to Bertie, who admired all impossible positions, was that they believed both things with equal intensity, never suspecting for a moment any inconsistency. And here was Bertie, Bertie thought, here was Bertie, inside their capitol, on the slopes of their mountains, on their smooth shores, who believed neither of these propositions, who believed in not having and in not suffering too, who yet realized the very same pleasure they would in having and not using.

The paragraph has Elkin firing on all cylinders, from the cascading clauses in the third sentence, each adding an additional detail to the image of the lone soldier in the foxhole, to the elaboration of the image of the last, lone bullet and its metaphorical comparison to the pizza Bertie is rationing for himself (having in a moment of extravagant abandon spent the entire $20 that Feldman left for him on the meal), to the idea of Bertie infiltrating and thereby undermining the acquisitive world of the squares. The movement of this paragraph is fluid and organic, maximalist without appearing self-indulgent.

Perhaps Hermanson is right: perhaps the short form is incapable of containing an imagination as expansive as Elkin’s. But there are moments in “The Guest” that deliver the goods. The story’s final sequence, which sees Bertie finding a kind of validation by taking responsibility for a crime he didn’t commit, is effective and surprising, and demonstrates that even a writer as broad as Elkin can find room to manouevre in the mode of the short story.

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