Picks and Pans Review: Van Gogh's Room at Arles

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Stanley Elkin

Nominated three times for the National Book Award and a finalist in 1991 for his novel The MacGuffin, Elkin is the master of cruel jokes and glorious farces. The three novellas of his 16th book treat us again to his cornucopian delight in language both high and low and his penchant for giving a kick in the pants to one character after another.

The first novella, "Her Sense of Timing," finds college professor Jack Schiff trapped in his wheelchair "handicapped and footicapped" by a nerve disorder when his wife abandons him on the eve of an annual party he gives for students. (Elkin has MS and is himself confined to a wheelchair.) The second focuses on a commoner, once engaged to the "Crown Prince" of England, telling her story to the tabloids after the royals find her "Unsuitable to Marry Their Larry."

In the title tale an insecure teacher from an obscure Midwestern college finds himself, during a scholar's retreat in Aries, France, assigned to the room where Van Gogh reputedly slashed his ear. Intimidated by his brilliant colleagues, but also dismayed by their self-importance, the teacher begins to imagine that he is living within a Van Gogh painting.

In these tales everyone is caught on the flypaper of situations that are tragic, absurd and hilarious. While the pace stalls a bit in the second story, Elkin's comic genius and bad manners soar in "Aries" as the teacher realizes—like all vintage Elkin characters—that life is wickedly unfair but supremely worth living. (Hyperion, $22.95)

From Our Partners