Searches and Seizures by Stanley Elkin Random House Cloth, $6.95; Paper, $3.45, 304 pp.
SEARCHES AND SEIZURES is so unmistakably a contemporary title, that it isn't hard to imagine it as an untactful publicity stunt meant to cash in on some recent political practices. Even if that accusation is true, this powerful collection of three short novels deserves every bit of attention it can get. The title does, after all, describe the book perfectly; the three novellas are linked thematically by it. More precisely, it is the breaking of search and seizure laws. Elkin's heros are badmen, who justify their acts through mixed-up metaphysical rules reflecting all of the saturnalian immediacy of today's politics. At the same time, they express deeper strains of human nature which will ensure Elkin's place among the best of modern novelists.
Alexander Main, the aging hero of "The Bailbondsman," is the modern Shylock, lending money to the innocent and guilty alike, interested only in the fact that they are "good risks." His job thrives on crime, not justice, and it is hampered by the "rulings of the late, unlamentable Warren court." He is the "Phoenician," creating a temporary oasis, a mirage, for the criminals who find themselves in a "desert of mood." He revels in a power which says, if his clients should jump bail, he can legally hunt them down and kill them. The most attractive element of the story is the hero's own first-person accounts. "My thoughts explode in words," Main exclaims. Elkin's recurring images literally explode off the page: Main sees a "Cincinnati beneath him like a crescent of jawbone, the buildings dental, gray as neglect, the Ohio juicing the town like saliva;" he speaks a "dialogue alive on my teeth like plaque;" and in a natural museum, "It is the teeth that he comes back again and again to see, as if these were the distillate of the animal's soul, the cutting, biting edge of its passion and life." But the wry Main, when queried about his interest in teeth, lies, "I'm a dentist." Alexander Main is a mad, comic-philosopher, who can only understand the limits to his power, as two universes leaking into each other through quasars and black holes: "the fucking laws are leaking,...God himself nothing but a slow leak, some holy puncture."
In "The Making of Ashenden," Warren Ashenden is the jet-set heir to a matchbook fortune. His father was the originator of the slogan, "For Our Matchless Friends." Ironically, Warren is literally matchless because he can find no partner to equal his self-image as one of the three or four dozen truly civilized men. Ashenden is a hopeless romantic, one of the "last young men in America," in middle age, "still looking for himself." And his story is a self parody of a hopelessly romantic Love Story peopled from Burke's Peerage. The 'Making' of Ashenden is actually a make-out: he's raped by a Russian Kamchatka Bear at a jungle-like estate in England. This experience gives him a renewed existential meaning, as he proclaims, "I'm kinky for bears." The bizarre tone of Elkin's humor, and complicated narrative twists, which often expect the reader to believe first-person accounts of thoroughly untrustworthy characters are as rewarding as they are trying. Somehow, it all makes a peculiar sense--there is no reason, everybody is insane.
The last novella, "The Condominium," is about a man who is very much like the condominium he lives in. Marshal Preminger lives in a complex of towers that "only sell to the right sort." In the same manner, he is cut off from himself: "Secretly, he was niggered, PR'd, chinkified." His apartment is "an investment to protect," just as his answer to the classic question, "To be or not to be, you schmuck," is that "if you pay and pay, eventually they must give you something for your money." Preminger is finally overcome by his 37-year-old virginity, and commits suicide. But even this, the most depressing of the three stories, is farcical, as the condomium's predominantly Jewish population are like Philip Roth's Patimkin family multiplied a hundred times over.
Each of the three heroes in Searches and Seizures is searching for something, some meaning to his life. But they grasp on to meaningless banalities only after passively experiencing epileptic-like seizures of will.
Elkin creates his own zany mythic world out of reality. Like a Cyclops, he grabs up all the frail bodies of pathos left to modern man, relying on a single vision of complete and utter absurdity. He chews them and spits them out, showing them to be the pathetic hypocrisies they are. Even Ulysses, the modern interpretation, that is, of "search for meaning," is chewed up and left a mere pile of bones to rattle in an unabashedly hilarious world of mock despair.
This man, like this world, is funny!