The life of a writer often celebrated by critics and admired by fellow novelists but who never achieved the popular acclaim and wealth he felt he deserved.
Dougherty (English/Loyola Univ. Maryland), who has published critical studies of Stanley Elkin (1930–1995) and James Wright, does his best to reconstruct the childhood of Elkin, though with only minimal success. As the author notes, virtually everyone who knew him then is gone, and Elkin himself, interested principally in narrative effect, told numerous versions of his experiences. Elkin had known since childhood that he wanted to write, and he excelled early. At the University of Illinois he met his wife, found encouraging teachers and eventually completed his doctorate in 1961—on Faulkner, one of his heroes. Dougherty shows us a testily loyal person. Elkin stayed married to the same woman, remained a professor at the same school—Washington University in St. Louis, though he had numerous visiting gigs elsewhere—stayed devoted to his early literary mentors and to his craft, continuing to labor on his fiction and essays until multiple sclerosis and a troubled heart finally felled him. Dougherty proceeds in traditional fashion. After mentioning each new major work, he pauses for summary and analysis, quotes from numerous reviews, cites the usually disappointing sales figures and examines the psychological effects on Elkin, who felt ever slighted despite winning prestigious honors (including two National Book Critics Circle Awards) and attracting a core of notable friends and admirers, including William H. Gass, Helen Vendler, Saul Bellow and Howard Nemerov. Elkin tried Hollywood continually, with little success.
Though sometimes admiring rather than analytical, a thoroughly reliable portrait of a neglected novelist.