Gunned down by a robber, a benign Minneapolis liquor-store owner called Ellerbee finds himself, with no small surprise, at the Pearly Gates. Angels ride clouds and strum harps. A choir sings “Oh, dem golden slippers.” Ellerbee thinks heaven is suspiciously on the small side, but begins to weep for joy—when St. Peter beatifically tells him, “Go to Hell.”
Thus begins Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, a fiendishly fast and clever rhapsody on The Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell (or rather on the ragbag of literal notions about them we all cart around). Elkin
can write, if now and again too flashily, and his triptych is updated Dante by way of Hobbes, showing the afterlife of a man to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
We rejoin Ellerbee 62 years later, “older now as a dead man than he had been as a living one,” but still “Hell’s greenhorn.” And he’s finally ready to surrender, lying down in smouldering cinders and burning surf, when he asks God for an explanation: “Why me?” “You stayed open on the Sabbath,” charges God, “when you were just getting started in your new location.” And swore and danced and smoked . . . (and thought that heaven looked like a theme park). And, as it happens, was not far off the mark. Despite the ambrosia and the hymns, Elkin’s paradise is a smug little quilting bee of a place, a Sunset Village in the Sun Belt—recalling the question posed by Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom in the long
run?” Ellerbee decides that heaven can wait: maybe hell won’t be so bad after all. And Elkin has just begun.
Fed up with the heckling from hell, with the one-man purgatory He created in Minneapolis by a slip of the tongue, and with the bickering of the Holy Family (“Some Queen, some Heaven,” grumps Mary, a kvetching Vinegar Virgin), God calls a petulant press conference. He created heaven and hell because the contrasts made for better art, He lectures—too bad He never found His audience. So, ever the showman, He releases His long-promised Apocalypse Now: creation crumples back into the void.
In the two hours’ read of Elkin’s poignant, daredevil book, all eternity ticks away. The Living End is divinely written, satanically funny and celestially wise. Bill MacVicar
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