Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: The Living End by Stanley Elkin

The book I'm reviewing this time is not a new book. You can probably find it in your local library and might have difficulty finding it in a bookstore (which is fine. The author is 14 years gone and not profiting from the new printing. Don't feel too guilty for reading it on someone else's dime.) I would call it a cult classic, except that the only two places I've ever heard it mentioned before are 1) the anthology where I read an excerpt from it many years ago and 2) myself talking about said excerpt. It was first released in the 1970s and has been out of print until fairly recently. I'm guessing because some publisher noticed there were about a thousand or so people like me around the world asking around at hairy-chinned literary-geek parties "Any news on whatever became of 'The Living End'?"

The other day I found out that a copy has been sitting in the Chico library for about 30 years. I said to Laurie "Quick! To the library!"
Which is something I say often.

I'll get to the material in a moment. The book put me very much in mind of a surprising revelation I had as I became well acquainted and knowledgeable about (and in love with) Scripture. The realization was about how many professing Christians in America know so little about the Bible and biblical doctrine. For a great many, often without their knowing where it came from, their theology comes from little third hand bits of the Bible from a smattering of topical sermons, some Milton, some Dante, Cabin in the Sky, Young Goodman Brown, Damn Yankees, The Horn Blows At Midnight, It's A Wonderful Life, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Warner Brothers cartoons, and perhaps even more disturbingly, Frank Peretti and (shudder) The Shack. When not in mixed company I call it "action figure religion" and I am unnerved by how often I hear earnest talk about "praying the demons out of" somewhere or something - or selling one's soul to the Devil, that sort of thing. Often the same types mix up Proverbs with quotes from Benjamin Franklin.

The Living End is in the idiom of action figure religion. It kind of riffs on that reality tunnel. Demons have horns, the gates are pearly with white bearded St. Peter with keys on a chain, etc.
The book is also squarely in the style of and generation when Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and Gore Vidal ruled the planet. Even if you removed the Watergate jokes from the book, you could very easily tell that this was a dark comedic novel from the 1970s. This is not a criticism. I'm very fond of that period. But it does bring certain baggage and expectations to the text.

The novel is a triptych. It follows three threads and, as usual, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. It starts on Earth with a man who dies (you would have learned that in the first 20 pages anyway. It is sort of the inciting incident) and experiences Heaven and Hell. The book jacket calls it a "contemporary version of Dante's Divine Comedy." That is very misleading. It has in common rich descriptions of the author's views of Heaven and Hell (no Purgatory) but the similarities end there. There is no lost love, there is no real progress through the layers of those places, there is no coming out the other side.

The label of "dark comedy" falls short fairly quickly as the book takes on some fairly heavy philosophical (and theological) issues. The world of the living on Earth comes across as so petty, mundane, cruel, miserable by our own making, and mean in this book, in comparison to what comes after. Hell is Hell. Elkin does a masterful job at describing Hell; and it is grueling. Most of the text takes place in Hell and it is a terrible place, the stuff of nightmares. He pulls no punches and the book ceases to be a haw-haw book at that point. Hell also has history, continuity, events, and relationships. In fact, in the sections of Hell Elkin turns a mirror on humanity, on our relationships, our misery, and our petulance.

There is a section in the middle which deals with sort of an oblivion/in-the-grave death which was very, very well done. It also struck me that Neil Gaiman has clearly read this book.

The portion in Heaven is very strange. Elkin is apparently not very sympathetic to God (until the end, which I might argue changes everything about everything said in the book. Very well done. It takes you right up to the last few words to get to it and it left me stunned.) Mary and Joseph's unique domestic situation is explored. Paradise ends up being problematic for created beings just like the rest of existence in ways one might not have expected. With the possible exception of God, I didn't get the impression that Elkin was being flip, dismissive or irreverent with any of the material. I thought he sought to really explore the issues through the filter of himself, a middle aged guy in St. Louis in the 1970s. In that respect I think he did a wonderful job, and that it is a fantastic book. His character of God is, as I said, not terribly flattering, but, without trying to make apologies for Elkin's views, I would add that the rift between Creator and creation, Job's impossibility of understanding the ways of the Almighty, may be what Elkin is exploring and, again, I think the final moment backs me up on that.

While the book is very readable, (and only about 150 pages. You could sit down and read it in an afternoon if you ever had that kind of time on your hands) I found it coming off the rails a bit in the middle of the third act. There are some sections meant to be poetic which I didn't find all that helpful or clear. In short, if I were Elkin's editor, it would probably be about a 110 page book, but that's just me. I hope I'm not being overly harsh and now feel compelled to mention again that it is a very well written book. After this admittedly limited experience with his work, I'm not entirely sure why Elkin is not a name in American literature like Vidal or Roth (he's no Kurt Vonnegut though. But who is?)

Finally, would I recommend it? Yes, I think I would with a few caveats. I personally didn't think it was blasphemous as it comes in with the presupposition of speculative fiction, exploring philosophically, sociologically and theologically, Man's Existential Dilemma. I never felt threatened or insulted by the book. Personally, I didn't find Elkin's God any more offensive than Kazantzakis' Christ. It was clear to me that the book was meant to ask "what if." Perhaps this is a rare instance of me being too generous. I really don't think Elkin set out to mock my belief system. I think the book could give an opportunity for so many questions, conversations and exploration of themes such as: salvation, works, damnation, suffering, man's inhumanity to man, the harshness of existence, and forgiveness in its many manifestations. There are some heartbreakingly beautiful passages in this book. There are also some laugh out loud passages. There were even a couple of moments when I teared up. I think it was a profitable little diversion for me and one that will stick with me for years to come.


  1. Thank you for the book review! I look forward to reading your blog.

  2. Well, our library system also has a copy of the 1979 printing, but it was in storage (not even on the racks any more) - Still, hold has been placed, should receive within the week.
    There was also a copy of the 1997 audiobook, amazingly enough.

    I never feel bad by choosing library over buying new copies. I can't recall the last time I've bought a new copy of anything, although I do enjoy used bookstores. While buying books off the new shelf does directly profit authors, buying them second-hand, or even reading them to keep them in circulation at the library pays them the greater compliment of continuing their legacy (even beyond their mortal lifespan, as in this case). Better to be in our current conscious than sitting in a dusty stack of forgotten books somewhere, or in the dumpster behind Borders.

  3. Good to see you, Kristin!

    And, as always, same to you, Sedge. Yes, for the most part I agree wholeheartedly and thrift and economics usually has me borrowing books or buying them used (and,needless to say, I also have no qualms about selling used books either.)
    The only reason I even brought it up was in contrast to my previous review of The Red Tree which was a brand new release by a living author who, should the first printing of that book sell out, would help advance her career as a writer. In that instance, I felt compelled to buy it new. In this case, never even crossed my mind until I wrote the review.

  4. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check the dumpster behind Borders.