Elkin’s Early Days

Writing in Nextbook, Sarah Almond takes a look at one of Stanley Elkin‘s lesser-known early novels, 1967’s A Bad Man. The novel, a surrealistic portrait of a half-Jewish man’s tenure in prison, has hint’s of Elkin’s own life in it (though he never did jail time). But the bigger influence may have been Bernard Malamud—as a sort of model of how not to write about Jewishness. Almond explains:

In the Spring 1967 issue of The Massachusetts Review, while still at work on A Bad Man, Elkin critiqued Malamud’s masterpiece [The Fixer] as “bringing about some telling stasis. . . . The Fixer is immensely moving, but this quality is at once its supreme achievement and part of its downfall.” Even Malamud’s most ardent supporters had noted the author’s frequent use of symbolism—in The Fixer as well as past works like The Assistant—to illustrate the moral implications of Jewishness. …. For Elkin, such allusions were too predictable. “It’s always seemed to me that the best kind of book is the open-ended book where anything can happen,” he later told Peter Bailey in an interview for Review of Contemporary Fiction. “I hate a book which has one premise and the writer sticks to that premise so tightly that . . . the reader has no room to breathe.”