"Shut Up Shuttin' Up!"

Article excerpt

I don't recall which scowling rabbi scowled me this, but I'm fairly certain he was scowling (most of them were): Before being born, every man, woman and child is allotted a certain number of words to use in their lifetime, a number chosen by God in His great Wisdom before the soul is dispatched from the firmament above to the earth below. Every yes and no and please and thank you counts.

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I don't know if contractions count for two.

I suspect swear words count double.

But no matter how you spend those words, the rabbis scowled--whether by speaking, singing, praising or wailing--when that number is up, Buddy, so is yours.

Rocky, the pocket-sized gangster from Looney Tunes, put it more honestly when he jammed his pistol into Bugs Bunny's mouth and growled, "Shut up shuttin' up."

In his defense, Yahweh isn't the only-fascist to be threatened by words, and his goons aren't the only ones to threaten those who speak up; if you believe the whole ex nihilo thing, he can, however, lay claim to being the first.

If.

I wasn't thinking about this sinister lexical accounting system when I first read Stanley Elkin's The Living End. Stanley Elkin was one of the last century's finest, wildest, funniest, most inventive writers, which is why so few people recognize his name today. Probably should have written more about boy wizards, then. The Living End was published in 1979, but I didn't discover it, or him, until, he died in 1995. I was trying to work up the courage to write my own stories at the time, and the what of Elkin's story was more immediately impressive to me than the how; I'd had a similar response to Beckett and Kafka: "You can do this?" I wondered. "This is allowed?"

The story, in brief, is three brief stories: In the first, a good man named Ellerbee is unfairly condemned to eternal damnation. In the second, one of Ellerbee's assailants, a man named Ladlehaus, is accidentally eternally banished not to Hell but to a burial plot near a St. Louis high school sports stadium. In the third, the groundskeeper who tends to Ladlehaus' plot is also accidentally killed and damned. In the end, there is The End--God, tired of "never finding his audience," calls The Whole Thing off. It's hilarious and angry and sad and insane.

You can do this? …