Across the board, we find, when it comes to stuff, the question of value is paramount. She waits and waits, that nice old lady on Antiques Roadshow, her eyeballs hot with avarice, while the burbling expert appraises her brooch or ivory-inlaid boxlet or whatever. Even the valueless has value to its owner. The hoarder stands in his front yard, sullen and spaced-out, as the guy from 1‑800‑GOT-JUNK? holds up the broken lampshade and says, “How about this here? Can we throw this out?” Well, can we? Probably not, because the lampshade, like the brooch and the boxlet, has its own obscure provenance, and its own moldy meanings.
Hoarders (unaccountably discontinued; we await its renewal) is at the abominable extreme of the pawn and storage shows: Two hoarders an episode, each immiserated in stuff and suffering the clinical attentions of a new priesthood of shrinks, junk-disposers, and professional organizers—stuff-exorcists. The hoards, the “hoarded out” homes, are beyond description: unholy, brain-defeating messes. This is the point of a hoard, it seems—you can’t get your head around it. “If I can’t do anything,” mumbles a hoarder named Manuel, deep in the decades-old Christmas stocking of despair, “why should I even try? So many years of trying to clean up and failing.”
It’s tempting to salute the hoarders, to hail their glorious rebellion against hygiene and order, their bastard installations, the seething fecundity of their hoard-mountains. To sleep on a pile of Esquire magazines from the ’70s: cool! But it’s not cool. Child Protective Services is coming to take your grandchildren away. Your wife wants to leave you. A hoard, it turns out, is dysfunction materialized: the silt of your psyche seeps into the world and becomes your overwhelmed and rat-hospitable kitchen.
“I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” So wrote W. B. Yeats, upon returning (I like to imagine) from an unsuccessful attempt to pawn one of Madame Blavatsky’s crystal balls. But the writer with the best, which is to say the loosest, grip on stuff is America’s own Stanley Elkin, who was the son of a traveling costume-jewelry salesman. Elkin (1930–95) was a stuff-devotee, properly in love with the science of low-end turnover. There was stuff in his writing style—piled-on clauses, straggling bundles of significance—and his books are a stuff-study of their own: you can nearly always find two or three of them in a used-book store, clustering there, persisting, peddling themselves hardily through the half-life of Elkin’s reputation. His 1967 novel, A Bad Man, gave us Isidore Feldman, a midwestern, metaphysical trafficker-in-everything: “I just blew in on the trade winds, and I’m hot see, and dusty see, and I’m smelling of profit and smelling of loss, and it’s heady stuff, heady.” After one raving, ecstatic sell-off, Isidore finds himself without goods and without customers. It’s all gone, all sold. But he’s not satisfied. “What’s to be done with the unsalable thing?” he sadly asks. His small son wants to know: What is it? What is the unsalable thing? Says the salesman: “It’s me.”