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Weird, Spirited 'Pieces Of Soap' Celebrates The Essays Of Stanley Elkin

Ariel Zambelich

There's a tendency to approach a posthumous collection of work by an esteemed "writer's writer" with respectful courtesy, but Stanley Elkin's essays demand a rowdier response from readers. They're weird and spirited, full of literal piss and vinegar. Pieces of Soap is the name of this collection and writer Sam Lipsyte, in his introduction, rightly says that reading Elkin makes you realize "how lazy most writing is."

It doesn't matter what the ostensible subject of these essays may be: they range from satirical ruminations on great art to the bodily humiliations of living with multiple sclerosis — as Elkin did — to a harsh memory piece about his father's job as a traveling costume jewelry salesman. The constant running through Elkin's essays is the thrill they convey of a writer actually thinking --fresh — on the page.

Even the odd organization of Elkin's essays rejects pre-fab constructs. Rather than fitting into the traditional well-wrought urn shape of the thesis essay, his pieces are bulbous. And, like his literary heroes, William Faulkner and James Joyce, Elkin knew how to musically spin out a sentence — sometimes for the length of an entire page — so that the journey through the piece is as rewarding as the ending epiphany.

The title essay, "Pieces of Soap," which dates from 1980, is Elkin at his circuitous best: it opens with Elkin prodding a house guest — a visiting professor who's just confessed to stealing soaps from hotels — to walk upstairs with him. Elkin then shows this amateur what a real soap habit looks like: piled throughout the second floor, in baskets and hampers, is Elkins' own collection of some 5,000 or 6,000 bars of mostly stolen miniature soap.

Readers may understand the soap pilfered from vacation hotels, but without any psychological explanation, Elkin indicates his urges go way beyond souvenir hunting. Here's a (necessarily edited) very long sentence from the middle of the essay, where Elkin bares all:

This essay would be transfixing enough if it skidded to a stop there, but Elkin isn't just trying for quirky. Instead, the final paragraphs shift into elegy when Elkin tells us that he's surrendered to time and finally begun to use the soaps in his collection; to lather up with the more expensive ones and enjoy, as he puts it, "a few minutes of four- and five-star stink." It's an off-beat and affecting vision of mortality in a bar of soap.

There are so many other singular essays here, chief among them, a wince-inducing story Elkin tells against himself involving a can of coke and Hubert Humphrey in the piece called "At The Academy Awards."

In "Where I Read What I Read," Elkin recalls a long ago-job he had at a dry-cleaning plant. One holiday weekend, he worked a three-day shift as a watchman and he spent it stretched out atop a wooden table, reading all of Joyce's Ulysses. The young Elkin finally leaves the plant on Tuesday morning, transformed. I'll let him take it from here:

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.