Tonight, I went with Greg Gerke to an event honoring the ever-inimitable Stanley Elkin. After a short documentary of Elkin’s life (featuring soundbites from his wife, daughter, William Gass, and others), Sam Lipsyte and David C. Dougherty weighed in. Lipsyte discussed the might and mythos of Elkin, and remarked on the effect that Elkin’s prose had on his own bitingly comedic writing, singling out “A Poetics for Bullies” for especial praise:
I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.
One time I was pushing this red-haired kid (I’m a pusher, no hitter, no belter; an aggressor of marginal violence, I hate real force) and his mother stuck her head out the window and shouted something I’ve never forgotten. “Push,” she yelled. “You, Push. You pick on him because you wish you had his red hair!” It’s true; I did wish I had his red hair. I wish I were tall, or fat, or thin. I wish I had different eyes, different hands, a mother in the supermarket. I wish I were a man, a small boy, a girl in the choir. I’m a coveter, a Boston Blackie of the heart, casing the world. Endlessly I covet and case. (Do you know what makes me cry? The Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal.” That’s beautiful.)
If you’re a bully like me, you use your head. Toughness isn’t enough. You beat them up, they report you. Then where are you? I’m not even particularly strong. (I used to be strong. I used to exercise, work out, but strength implicates you, and often isn’t an advantage anyway—read the judo ads. Besides, your big bullies aren’t bullies at all—they’re athletes. With them, beating guys up is a sport.) But what I lose in size and strength I make up in courage. I’m very brave. That’s a lie about bullies being cowards underneath. If you’re a coward, get out of the business.
I’m best at torment.
It’s a great bit of writing to single out for appreciation, since it demonstrates Elkin’s uncanny ability to capture a persona, a singularity through the bob and weave of a sparring voice. You can find the story in Elkin’s collection Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers, and Criers.
Lipsyte also threw out a bunch of questions to David C. Dougherty who had read from his book about Elkin: Shouting Down the Silence: A Biography of Stanley Elkin.
Later, Hilma Wolitzer, a friend and colleague of Elkin’s, was in the audience and shared some funny anecdotes.
Another highlight for me was when Robert Brown, fiction editor at Esquire 1962-1968 (post-Rust Hills and pre-Gordon Lish), relayed a story about how he’d once told Elkin that he’d never received an autographed copy of any of his books. Elkin responded by sending him the Japanese translation of his book A Bad Man. At the event, Brown asked if anyone wanted his copy of A Bad Man, the Japanese translation. So I’m now the proud owner of the book, which is inscribed with the following:
It is another example of Elkin at his usual uproarious best.
After receiving this gift of a book I learned that sometimes A Bad Man is easy to find. (See pictures below.)