THE RABBI OF LUD by Stanley Elkin
Kirkus Star


Age Range: 74 - 75
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Though all of Elkin's work is saturated with Jewish-American, Yiddish-tinged rhythms, few of his novels are explicitly, centrally Jewish in character and theme. This new book is extravagantly ethnic and blissfully sectarian, as Elkin drapes grotesque tall tales, baroque spiels, and irreverent parodies around a jaunty narrator: Jerry Goldkorm, a "pickup rabbi, God's little Hebrew stringer in New Jersey." Jerry, you see, is Rabbi of Lud, a tiny north N.J. town that exists only to service nearby Jewish cemetaries; congregationless, Jerry is employed by the local funeral home. In the novel's first, best section, delivered in a rambling monologue that mixes the profane, the preachy ("I'm speaking in my rabbi mode here"), and the grimly hilarious, Jerry reveals his weak academic past, his iffy command of Hebrew, and shares arcane, super-orthodox strictures. ("According to some interpretations of Talmud, a man may be denied his place with God if he can lift three times his own body weight.") He testily addresses God by funny names--tit for tat; details his ever-blazing lust for wife Shelley, who gets turned on by phylacteries and talks in babyish pidgin Yiddish; and frets about daughter Constance, 14, who's fed up with the morbidity and isolation of Lud. ("Daddy, our back yard is a cemetary!") Then, in a 90-page digression, Jerry recalls his year ('74-75) as Chief Rabbi of the Alaska Pipeline. There's a wayward plane trip, a wilderness-survival ordeal (featuring a dandy parody of outdoorsy uplift), and a surreal encounter with "an old Jew with a beard made out of flowers." More amusingly, there are tales of Jerry's weird success as Chief Rabbi, using reverse-psychology to draw crowds (largely non-Jewish) to Shavuoth services. The novel's final section returns to Lud--where Constance claims to have had a cemetary visit from none other than the Holy Mother, come "to rescue the poor lost souls of righteous Jews." (Holy Mother's drawl is half yenta, half Butterfly McQueen.) Constance's vision becomes an embarrassment, of course--to the funeral home (which is having money problems, anyway) and to the Rabbi, who's dabbling in adultery and real-estate salesmanship. Like most of Elkin's novels, this is episodic, disjointed, and unshapely. The verbal shenanigans (unwieldly parentheses, paragraph-long sentences, rococo riffs) occasionally get out of hand. But, though Rabbi Jerry isn't a fully credible or coherent character, his narration--loose, angry, half-hip, half. cloddish--gives the book a center. The combination of favorite Elkin themes--mortality, theology-ad-absurdum, hucksterism--generates loopy, creepily memorable vignettes. And while only a limited audience will appreciate all the layers of intensely allusive humor here, this is a bouncy, zestily outrageous comeback from The Magic Kingdom.
Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 1987
ISBN: 1564782700
Page count: 292pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1987


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