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Book Review : Plot Finds Despair in Rabbi's Cemetery

October 28, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The Rabbi of Lud by Stanley Elkin (Charles Scribner's Sons: $17.95; 277 pages).

Stanley Elkin's narrators, like Philip Roth's, are dense palavers. Their unremitting twists and paradoxes beat the milk of discourse into curd. They leave no ground uncovered, no chink unfilled; they leave room for no reply. Plainly, they preferred to play alone as little boys because they got to make the rules.

There is a fierce energy in it, and much wit. When it works, it climbs by toothholds onto a height of engagement with the universe. The literary precursor is Job, who asked God: "Why?" When it doesn't work, the result is more tooth marks than height. After all, there is a difference between "Why?" and "Why me?"

The protagonist and narrator, Jerry Goldkorn, invites you to consider him as the most ridiculous of rabbis. There is no humility in the assertion; it is pride. As a bar mitzvah candidate, he was given the easiest and shortest possible text to memorize. His rabbinical studies were accomplished at an institution in the Maldives; something like doing your medical studies in Grenada.

His post is worthy of his preparation. Lud is a tiny community in the New Jersey flats, whose only function is to service the enormous Jewish cemetery next to it. The village barber gives haircuts to the dead. The police force is a security detail for the graves and ceremonies. And Rabbi Goldkorn's pastoral activities consist exclusively of funeral services.

As an image of man alone, or rabbi alone, in an empty and absurd universe, this is pretty good. Elkin heightens the absurdity with any number of prickly details. One of the prickliest is the suggestion that the whole cemetery operation is crime-infiltrated. Further, that various disgraced Mafia figures have been buried under fake Jewish names so as to make their rubbing-out more literal.

Goldkorn thinks it possible that he has buried Jimmy Hoffa. He even thinks that he may have buried Josef Mengele "under the guise of Morris Feldman, a hat salesman from Garden City, Long Island."

Goldkorn's sole joy, apart from whipping his misery into virtuoso pirouettes, is his high-powered sex life with his wife, Shelley. In her waning 30s, Shelley is smooth as fresh cream and has a rabbi fetish, besides. She gets a charge out of phylacteries and prayer shawls.

Connie, the 14-year-old daughter, tries to bear up; but it isn't easy. She learns a little Hebrew from the gravestone inscriptions. Basically, of course, she longs to move to a place where there is shopping, people on the street and other teen-agers.

Connie's despair, compounded of her own isolation, her mother's flakiness and her father's self-mocking self-righteousness, produces a mystical vision. She meets, or thinks she meets, the Virgin Mary walking in the graveyard.

The Holy Mother, as the book refers to her, is a nice, middle-aged Jewish mother; warm, practical and enormously proud of her distinguished son. She is there, she explains to Connie, to "harrow the graves of righteous Jews."

Nothing could be more offensive to the Jewish faith. But to the Holy Mother, it is just a bit of motherly helping-out; as she might fill in for a vacationing receptionist if her son were a doctor. She is cautious and highly selective, and only harrows seven or eight graves. But she lets Connie do one. And, seized by the zeal of adolescent discovery, Connie comes back the next day and harrows en masse. Worst of all, she makes a deposition about it to a lawyer, and invites the press in. Naturally, this plunges Goldkorn into further practical and metaphysical complications.

The harrowing scene is the books's most inspired passage; Elkin at his best. It breaks Goldkorn's monopoly on the absurd. His child--it is what growing children will do--has out-absurded him. He is no longer in control, not even of the narration. The scene is told by Connie, and her comical and touching voice is like a window opening to the rain.

Goldkorn soon closes it and his voice takes over once more. It has already overwhelmed and flooded out its own self-mockery. The notion of a rabbi of Lud makes a fine scaffolding for a flight of existential despair; but Goldkorn talks despair down into a one-man kvetch.

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