In the summer of 1995, I was asked to read a passage from Stanley Elkin’s work at a memorial service for him, to be held during the Sewanee Writers Conference, at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Stanley had died that past May.
I was honored to have been asked because I was a huge fan of Stanley’s fiction, and because he had been a dear friend.
In fact I was such an ardent fan that it often struck me as astonishing and highly unlikely that we had become friends. To me, spending time with Stanley seemed like the equivalent of being invited to hang out with the Dalai Lama on a beautiful porch—on a succession of beautiful porches—at the various writers conferences (first Breadloaf, then Sewanee) at which Stanley and I taught. Actually, it seemed better than hanging out with the Dalai Lama; Stanley was funnier, louder, told dirtier jokes, and had a bigger personality. Certainly Stanley was a more eloquent complainer than I imagined the Dalai Lama being, even (or especially) at the spiritual leader’s lowest moments. There was something about crankiness, Stanley’s own crankiness and the crankiness of others—the performative aspect of crankiness, let’s say—that delighted him. I always felt he liked me best when I was most irritated, or irritable, and when I was able to transform that irritability (as he did so well) into humor.
For more than a decade before his death, Stanley and I had spent weeks in the summer on those porches, most often with our families, with my husband Howie and Stanley’s wife Joan, and sometimes with our children, for whom those conferences provided an excuse to enact their version of some Lost Boys or (worst-case) Lord of the Flies scenarios, running wild across the scenic campuses with the other writers’ kids. Stanley and Joan’s daughter Molly, older than my own kids, was already great fun to talk to, as she has remained.
When we weren’t sitting on the porches, we were eating (mostly awful) Conference food, attending readings, giving readings, teaching classes, reading student manuscripts and having manuscript conferences. Those last three elements of our job description were the main focus of Stanley’s complaints, which would rise to a pitch of annoyance, of grievance, of righteous fury—and then subside. And then he would go off to meet his lucky, grateful, and understandably anxious students. Stanley was known to be a fierce critic of student work; to say that he didn’t suffer fools gladly doesn’t begin to describe the intensity of his disapproval, of his response to anything he found careless, false, or second-rate.