John L’Heureux, who died this past April, was an exquisite writer—to the very end; a master teacher; a deeply thoughtful man of faith; and a mentor, in the most profound sense of the word. He carried himself with more innate dignity than any person I have ever known—in his manner of speech, the ideas he imparted, even the way he dressed: always in newly shined shoes and an elegant sports coat. When he taught my workshop at Stanford, I’m pretty sure he was the only one in the classroom wearing gold cuff links.
John also read more, knew more about, and better understood American Jewish literature than almost any other former Jesuit priest I know. I remember countless lunches with him, talking about Paley and Ozick and Pearlman and being awed by the depth of his understanding not only of their technical skills but of their experiences—for good and bad—as Americans and as Jews. Before I encountered Grace Paley’s stories as an undergraduate, I had never before seen the older generations of my family depicted on the page. She captured it all: the role of women in supposedly progressive movements, the way politics could seamlessly slide from the kitchen table to the playground and out into the world. Paley had utter compassion for every one of her characters. She was deeply funny without ever resorting to meanness. She wrote political stories, but they were never didactic. John intuited all that, but rather than simply praising her, he wanted to talk about how she accomplished these things. Prior to talking Paley with John, I felt I understood her because her characters were the closest I’d come to finding my relatives in literature. The more we talked, the clearer it became that John understood her work on a different level—he was engaging with it through a thorough exploration of what was happening on the page. And through our discussions I came to appreciate Paley less because her characters were recognizable to me and more for her impeccable craft—which John could parse with Talmudic nuance.