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.
As I’ve said, I was honored to have been asked by the conference director and poet Wyatt Prunty to speak at Stanley’s memorial. But I was also nervous about it, for several reasons.
One of those reasons was that, unlike many writers, Stanley was a terrific reader of his own work. He managed to get it all across: the cadence, the force and sheer exuberance of his language; the nervy plots; his frequently pathetic, repulsive, and profoundly sympathetic characters; the grossness and obscenity, the poetry; the all-too-rare gift for writing “serious” fiction that could make its readers laugh out loud. The off-the-charts energy of his sentences, his ability to reanimate and reconstruct the written word, his talent for using a particular word in a way in which (as far as you knew) it had never been used before, and which made you stop and think until you figured out how and why it was precisely the right word—that no other word would have done.
And his maximalism: the continual testing, testing, to see how much weight a sentence could sustain, how long it could go on without losing its clarity, its logic. In an interview, Stanley said that there were writers who took things out and writers who put things in, and that he was one of the latter. One of the things I remember saying at the memorial service was that I kept several of Stanley’s novels near my desk, and that whenever I felt I’d written a lazy sentence, a cliché, or a sloppy or inexact passage of description, I’d open one of Stanley’s books at random, and every sentence I read would inspire me to go back to my own writing and work harder. I still have his books near my desk, and his sentences still function, for me, that way.
I’d heard Stanley read many times, and every one of those readings had been a stellar and unforgettable performance. He usually claimed to be reading from a work in progress, but how could something so perfect and polished be in progress? In progress toward what? Each performance outdid the previous one in its brilliance, its poetry, its humor, its honesty, its pure cringe-inducing ballsiness.
I heard him read the early pages of The Magic Kingdom, in which a grieving father named Eddie Bale manages to convince the Queen of England to kick-start his obsessive, well-meaning but ultimately disastrous program to bring dying children to Disneyland; a description of heaven and hell (some of it in the voice of God) from The Living End; the beginning of The Rabbi of Lud, one of the darkest and funniest meditations on Judaism and New Jersey ever written. It’s telling that both Howie and I remember Stanley standing up when he read, though by the time we met him, his multiple sclerosis had advanced to the point at which that would have been unlikely or impossible. He was sitting—it only seemed as if he were standing.
One thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to read, at Stanley’s memorial service, anything I’d heard him read. I didn’t want to hear his voice in my head, reminding me—as he would never have done in life, because, for such a notorious curmudgeon, he was unfailingly polite and kind to me—of what a lousy job I was doing.
Also, because he’d died just a few months before, and because I was still extremely sad about his death, I was afraid I might find it hard to keep my composure throughout the reading. I have strong feelings about speakers at memorial services not compelling the assembled mourners to witness their emotional breakdowns. It always seems somehow . . . unhelpful. I’d spoken at several memorial services in the months leading up to that summer (it was one of those times, when, as sometimes happens, a number of loved ones die in dizzyingly quick succession), and somehow I’d managed to keep it together when I’d been asked to say something.
I found it consoling to recall an evening, several summers before, en route to dinner in Vermont, when we’d passed a lovely rural cemetery, and Stanley had greeted the tombstones—the dead—with a hearty, expansive wave. “See you soon, guys!” he’d called out.
Stanley loved to be right.
So the question was: what to read?