The Curious Psuedo-Hero

I’m currently reading Stanley Elkin’s George Mills, an ambitious and resiliently inventive novel about a family line doomed to failure (all of them are named “George Mills” and extend back a thousand years) and susceptible to the throngs of losers, charlatans and fakes that exploit humanity with kooky get-rich-quick schemes and use the various Millses as lackeys and novitiates. Elkin has a considerable bone to pick with astrologers, con men, and even telethon hucksters like Jerry Lewis. What makes George Mills such an interesting read is that the various George Millses are, not unlike Marquand’s George Apley, satirical characters that are written with a quiet sympathy. One hopes that these characters will see the blinding obstacles which prevent them from taking control of their lives. And yet because the reader knows this type so well, they are almost always doomed to failure or a late recognition of their problems.

I’m fascinated by this type of protagonist, because it doesn’t exactly involve a clear hero or an antihero. (For purposes of clarification, I’ll call this character type a “psuedo-hero.”) The interesting thing about Marquand and Elkin is that, by hanging their novels around psuedo-heroes, they both tapped into a wide reception (Marquand with postwar middle-class readers, Elkin with the critical community), only to drop rapidly out of public consciousness. (Most of Marquand’s work is out of print. Avon put out a series of Elkin trade paperbacks in the mid-nineties, most of which I was able to find years ago in remainder piles.)

Fortunately, Dalkey Archive Press has kept all of Elkin’s work in print. They also have an essay by Rick Moody about Elkin.