Late at night, the ids of his callers and guests flash like dorsal fins. He taps into what he calls “the range of the strange.”
Before we go further, it’s worth noting how fully this novel, which is set mostly in the two decades after World War II, anticipates the daily purge that is the internet, its mille-feuille layers of outrage and heartbreak.
In it, Elkin (1930-1995) considers how the telephone can make “every home in America its own potential broadcasting station, and every American his own potential star.” Everyone is his own cognitive hacker, his own potential phone phreak.
I first read “The Dick Gibson Show” in college, when I was too young to fully appreciate it. I doubt it could be assigned any longer. It would require more trigger warnings than a Roy Rogers movie.
There are stories of violence against women; of old men fiddling with young men in movie theaters. There are belches of casual racism. Cruelty and abandonment and distress peek from beneath every curtain.
The contents of Elkin’s novel leave you a bit sick. His talent leaves you wasted, too. This book is a landslide of language, and it’s unfair, somehow, that so many gifts were bestowed on one writer.
You can flip through this novel for its gags, which zip past. When the idea of murder with a poison enema arises, one character pleads, “I have no enemamies.” You can read it for the addled aphorisms. (“To the victors belong the spoiled.”)
You can scan it for the wordplay, which often reads like Shakespeare by way of Saul Bellow. “By what inevitable degrees,” Elkin asks, “does bent become inclination, inclination tendency, tendency penchant, penchant disposition, disposition fate?”
Approach it for its flights of fancy, sexual and otherwise. A pharmacist, on Gibson’s show, gives listeners a tour of his shelves, which include sex-play items named “the Texas Truss” and “the Gypsy Outrage.”
Elkin also has a beautiful feel for radio in the old days. Here he is on what it’s like to play old public service announcements like “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” and “Watch Out for the Other Guy”:
“Dick loved the ragged shrillness of these messages, their martial musical backgrounds, the sense they gave of a low budget and a moribund style: the sound man’s cellophane fires, more cozy than ominous, the long scream of a car horn gone awry that was, in these pieces, an inevitable signal of an accident proclaiming itself, a fanfare of the accomplished fact.”
There is essentially no plot in “The Dick Gibson Show.” It is a percussive string of monologues. There are lulls. (I could have done without the wartime dodo story.) Don’t put this book down and walk outside. You are in the eye of Elkin’s storm of language, and the wind is about to whip around.
This novel builds toward one all-night scene, a talk-show panel that includes a charm-school proprietor, a paranoid psychologist, an associate professor of English and a pharmacist. One of them may or may not have a gun.
These men and women begin to talk, and all the moral levees break. After the woman, weeping Pepper Steep, relates her epic love affair with a memory freak, we read: “There was a sort of lunatic joy in the room, a sense of free-for-all that was not so much an exercise of liberty as of respite – as if someone had temporarily released them from vows.”
The night is young. A man is about to pull his chair closer to the microphone and speak about making a candle from a woman’s earwax, among the perversions that are printable here. Another will deliver an outsize tragicomic aria about suicide.
Elkin was a melancholy maximalist, a putter-inner. He fought with editors who tried to pare his work down. “I don’t believe that less is more,” he told The Paris Review. “I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.”
In novel after novel he offered a virtuoso mind at full boil. “The best literature,” Malcolm Cowley said in a letter, “sometimes produces the rattiest psychological effects.” If you buy a copy of “The Dick Gibson Show,” don’t tell them I sent you.
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