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Stanley Elkin

By William H. Gass

Enrico Caruso played many parts, just as Stanley Elkin created many characters, but the great tenor’s audience didn’t attend Aida to hear Radames boast of his victories, it came to hear his voice, a voice so special and superb the rest of the cast became chorus. Nevertheless, Caruso could give Radames only his soaring sound, a great gift to be sure, but modest in a way—to continue the comparison—because Stanley sang both parts during duets; he sang for the scenery; he was the boisterous crowd on the stage and, in the pit, the orchestra’s every instrument; he was the house itself, the plush seats, the plump patrons, the young ushers; and he supplied more than their distinctive tones, he was also the action and the words, conceived from the first in a voice trained to speak for the players’ dreams as well as their realities; for Stanley knew that voice was the soul and source of his art, that his voice was unmatched, whether as a menacing basso or a flustered coloratura, so he sang the whole show, including the lines he gave God … a good part, but not so good it might swell His head.

Because the best roles he reserved for the otherwise unnoticeable people: the small and struggling entrepreneur, your local DJ, an inept but eager celebrity collector, a bailbondsman, a set of sick kids, men who wore the blue collar, women whose garters were the same unpretentious color, schlimazels whose unlikely good luck was to find themselves winners in Stanley’s verbal derby. Stanley made the powerless powerful by giving them something to say, something to say for themselves.

The objects of his arias were so well observed, their words so much a mouthful, their joint recital as rich as a department store inventory, that to let them roll off your tongues when you read remains better than bowling, more thrilling than a rollercoaster ride, with as many bobs and weaves as a boxer whose single skill is how to feint. Like Dickens Stanley knew how to make people real: let them talk. He listened to the radio because the radio was made of voices, and because there you could hear what he called “the shoptalk of personality.” The metaphor is absolutely Elkin. In his work there is always the shop (the job, the task, the business), the talk (the joke, the chatter, the lame excuse, the lingo of local life, the put-down, the send-up, the rag, the riff), then people and their personalities (the goy, the guy, the jerk, the joe who has his heart in his mouth and is naturally afraid of what his tongue may touch), and finally the subject of their exchange (their common fix, their absurd situation, the madness in every mode of life).

Stanley understood that, for a writer, life was an opportunity for language to happen. And how he made it happen! He made it into the only show on earth.

We can hear Caruso still, because he sang now and then into a paper funnel, and left the sound of his voice safely in a circle of grooves. Stanley Elkin knew that his work was always what he really was, and we can continue to hear him too, and the figures his singing filled, since he left us a shelf of his incomparable recordings. We’ll play them again and again, Stan. You can rest assured.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 2, 1996.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters