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Gabriel Blackwell on Stanley Elkin’s Boswell


I am, by way of introduction, perpetually adjunct; not quite ad hoc, still not joined. Inessential. A barnacle, an on-looker, a modifier. I worry. What encomiums for the adjunct?

I am a “Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing.” This is already my second year of visiting, my reunion with familiarity, a second chance for consequence. In nine months, I hope to still be visiting, to have immured my hosts to the fishy odor marking the offices I occupy. I’m a good guest. Quiet. I leave nothing behind. Boswell says: “I have come to make my fortune and have instead added to the fortunes of others. That’s the role of most men, I suppose.” Would it be wrong to find myself in his words? Too grand? I am a guest-post, a ghost, even here, on this blog. And you? You are a reader, a rubber-necker just like me.

But here we are, then, most men indeed, you and I alike in inconsequence, awaiting. Why wait? Who do we wait on? Or rather, what are we waiting for?

All genuinely great men were martyrs whose characters and purposes were like those double ramps in architecture which wound and climbed and never touched in a concrete illusion of strand. The rest of us climbed those ramps in the delusion that the fellow we saw across the gaping space moved on the same path. It was the barber-pole condition of life, and we assumed in good faith some ultimate matrix common to all.

It’s a cheat, Boswell says, a trick of the birth-canal. Or before—conception. Escher knew. Before I was an adjunct, I was a waiter. Born to it, I guess, doomed. It was just a fillip of fate that I am also constitutionally impatient, restive, restless. Waiting? Ritalin only made it worse. Why excel when to do so seems hubristic, when others think you’ve done it not for them but for yourself? Who’s kidding who?

Gentle reader and fellow-gawker, is this confusing? I speak not of me, but of Boswell. No, not of Boswell but of Boswell; all of the time that I have been talking of myself, I’ve been telling you of Boswell, the movie-still mirror-image of the man in the link, that man’s own purpose in reverse, reversed. Elkin’s Boswell, I mean, subtitle: A Modern Comedy, the story of James Boswell, strongman and hanger-on of hauteur, attaché with cachet. (Why a strongman? It’s something anyone would ask. It’s the chip on the shoulder, you see, the weight of the world that comes to you when you care, yes, but despair of effect.) An entire novel devoted to posterity. Or no, not devoted to—obsessed by. But so are they all.

“Boswell, Denied Place in Pantheon, Crashes Party to End All Parties.” He finds coattails, he mugs for cameras. He’s a groupie: not great, only nearby. He’s trying to steal greatness. But what is it, after all, this pursuit, its object? I don’t ask idly, I’m repeating the man. (What does it mean to be a hanger-on of a hanger-on?)

Boswell is an orphan, of a kind (Elkin’s abiding obsession). Not enough love? No, not exactly: never enough love. It’s not situational, you see. It’s a matter of hunger. Some of us have big appetites. Others have bigger. The world provides, somehow, but somehow there will always be the hungry, the starved. There are more of us than you’d think. (Or perhaps television has finally convinced you otherwise?) To tell the truth, we’re just scared. The first line of Boswell: “Everybody dies, everybody.” That’s it. Three words—and two of them are the same, hangers-on for the one with gravitas, “dies.” Yeah, everybody. Still, we’re scared. We already know what’s coming for the great. Didn’t you see Diana’s funeral? What about the rest of us? What have we got coming to us?

Boswell devotes his life to the gathering of his day’s great, blinding himself to history’s blindness to our peculiar devotions, an Oedipus to posterity. Most rebuff him even in the moment; very few want him as a friend. His relationships are the only things hidden to us in this tell-all, perhaps for good reason. There seems nothing likeable in him, no germ of genuineness to water, to sun. If he cannot be great, he will be a freeloader, a pretender, even on our attentions. And yet he maintains a scrupulous honesty. His moral code is coded, his dignity indignant. Indigent, too. If it seems half a life to you, it is only because you can’t see yourself as others see you. Half a life? Not even close. When I’ve read your book, it goes on a shelf with a hundred others. And that shelf is one of half a dozen.

Black cats cross all of our paths. You know, infinity? Our lines don’t end where the horizon crosses them—somewhere down the line, one of Fate’s fingers is stroking our string, and here we are, vibrating. What to do, strangle them all? Nah. Throw them in the river? We’re too timid to do them in; instead, they walk on our graves. We shiver all our lives. It’s because we care that we disappear. The great? They don’t care. Cat-killers, all of them. “No one believes in death,” says Boswell, “Except me. Boswell. I believe in it.” What happens after, it’s none of our concern; if only we weren’t so concerned about it. Maybe more than what divides us from it; maybe more than death itself, says Boswell (well, in a round-about way; it takes him almost 400 pages to say so).

Perhaps there are men in the world’s counting houses with larger fortunes than Midas’s. Perhaps there are anonymous fourths sitting around the world’s tables who have played better bridge than Hoyle. But it doesn’t make much difference. Midas has had fortunes named for him; the Earl of Sandwich, lunches. So it’s not quantity alone. One speaks, too, of the quality of a fortune, the quality of a love affair. My heroes don’t give only their time or their lives to their works. They give their names as well. They know what they’re doing. They cast their names upon the waters and they come back tenfold, a hundred, a million. It is the Christianity of Fame.

There are no unsung heroes, ladies and gentlemen. Only the unsung. After all, there are fewer songs than there are stories.

Boswell, having finally gathered together all of the world’s great, is not famous enough to join them as their host, somehow unworthy of his own party. He welshes on his own code, gives the bouncer a fake name, gets bounced. There is no swell of strings. Before you lament his passing, remember Mel Brooks (everyone else will): “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” We’re all adjuncts in someone’s life, Boswells of various names. Want to be famous in your own time? Live alone. You can still have a few laughs. Read a book or something. Write one, maybe. Why shouldn’t you write a book about you? It’s not so ridiculous. Just don’t believe it’s about its subject. They’re all of them, all of them, about Boswell.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Critique of Pure Reason. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife.


Big Other’s Bookclub on the three novellas in Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Bailbondsman,” “The Making of Ashenden,” and “The Condominium”

4 thoughts on “Gabriel Blackwell on Stanley Elkin’s Boswell

  1. As an amateur book reviewer, it’s inspiring to me to see that book reviews can be as creative and engaging as the material they seek to recommend. Thanks for this one!

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