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:
In any of those first minutes in a hotel or an airplane ... I locked myself like someone caught short, seized up with diarrhea, into the lavs of aircraft while we were still attached to the chupah or jetway or whatever it is they call that thing that connects the airplane to the terminal ... I pull handfuls of handsoap from the little metal dispensers like someone scraping change from the coin return of a pay telephone, ... stuffing pants pockets, shirt, the inside pockets of sport coats I might not have even purchased had they not been deep enough to accommodate my special soap needs, ripping off between a dozen and fifteen bars at a time on my great plane-robbery raids, ... ; never, ... taking the last few bars, leaving like a gent cat burglar's calling card these signature soaps. ...
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:
It wasn't until ... after I left the store, that I smelled the smells, tasted them, the napthas and benzines ... coating my mouth like sore throat, swabbing my throat like pus, stinging my eyes like chemical warfare. ... the separate impressions of laundry and literature like things bonded in genes.