History's straight man; George Mills, by Stanley Elkin. New York: E.P. Dutton. 508 pp. $15.95.
Stanley Elkin brings the antihero into the '80s with this thousand-year-long chronicle of the George Mills line, which begins with a stable boy and ends with a furniture mover; a thousand years of blue-collar, but un-common, blood.
The first George Mills accompanies his lord on a journey to the First Crusade but ends up in a Polish salt mine after taking a wrong turn in the Netherlands. It's the lord, Guillalume, who puts Mills in his place: ''Learn this, Mills. There are distinctions between men, humanity is dealt out like cards. There is natural suzerainty like the face value on coins. . . . It isn't luck of the draw but the brick walls of some secret, sovereign Architecture that makes us so.''
But if Mills's destiny is to be always the ruled, history's straight man, it is also to survive - and there is superiority merely in that. The first George Mills (and all who come after; they could be the same character set down in different centuries) has an awareness of his own fate, and this gives him a kind of insight into the ways of the world. He is sometimes as keenly aware of what is about to happen as he is of his powerlessness to affect it.
Mills feels bound by the letter of life. He tries to live by the rules, and envies those who can set aside the rules, or turn them to advantage: the powerful, the rich, the clever, who are his constant companions through time. But he has the peculiar gift of seeing the world as it should be - something his fellows are incapable of - and the present-day George Mills comes to recognize this as a kind of grace, of salvation.
The diversions and asides and time shifts in the book often pull the reader reluctantly away from one set of characters and plot to some other, but the structure allows room for Elkin's sharp and diverse humor, and permits him to string together the kinds of tales he is best at telling: the odd circumstances of people's lives, their quirky destinies.
George Mills the 43rd meets King George the Fourth and gets sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, where he lands, first, in a corps of Janissaries and, later, in the sultan's harem as a sheet-folder. The present-day George Mills grows up in a small Florida town famed for its spiritualists and, as an adult, becomes the companion of a woman taking Laetrile treatments in Mexico. Other stories are only peripheral to the main one, but they take the reader by surprise and gain something magical by their unexpectedness.
The book's energetic entertainment sometimes overpowers its more serious intentions, but among the wild and outrageous adventures and pure wit, there is also the dignity of particular human lives, and insight into how we are all connected to one another.