The following remembrance ofStanley Elkin from NBCC member Abby Frucht kicks off the In Retrospect series'look back at his (first) winning novel, George Mills, which took home the fiction award in 1982 over books by Cynthia Ozick, Anne Tyler, Alice Walker and Bobbie Ann Mason. Elkin later won the award again in 1995 for Mrs. Ted Bliss.
Now that I’m a writing teacher myself, it’s possible that the reason I find overseeing standard writing workshops to be something of an onerous task is that my very first fiction writing class was run according to conventional classroom format, with the students in rows at their desks and our professor up front at his desk near the chalkboard. This was Stanley Elkin’s fiction writing class (we didn’t even call it a “workshop”) at Washington University in the close of the 1970s. Mr. Elkin could be counted on to be the last through the door. In he’d hobble on his cane, suffering obvious aggravation and discomfort from the multiple sclerosis he’d been diagnosed with in the earlier part of the decade, then hover in a gnarly posture over the big wooden desk, poking at stacks of papers and books as if in search of an ember for the begrudging lighting of somebody’s cigarette. I remember lots of smoking going on in those classrooms those days, and whether or not Elkin was one of the smokers, he probably grumbled about smoking as he grumbled about nearly everything else – about having once quit smoking, maybe, or hating the smell, or having a lousy sense of smell, or not having drunk enough coffee that morning, or having drunk too much. To his face, we all called him Mr. Elkin, but the grad students called him Stanley among themselves. We undergrads referred to him as Elkin, period.
“Now which piece a shit are we going to talk about today?” Elkin would grumble, riffling through the motley pile of smudged carbon-copies fanned out on his desk. Although we’d handed in our stories with the usual proud anxiety, we took no offense at hearing him call them “pieces a shit,” for that was what he called his favorite novels, too. “Listen to this piece a shit!” he’d enthuse, poking a finger at a passage from As I Lay Dying, his shoulders hunched in their display of abject heaviness, as if succumbing to both kinds of gravity simultaneously.
Then he’d read aloud from one of our own manuscripts before asking, “Now, can anyone tell me what THIS piece a shit is about?”
“A man throwing up in a sauna,” one of us might hesitantly offer.
“Some middle-aged guy who –“
“It’s about the idea of humility,” the bravest of us might interject.
There’d be the usual shuffling of all our body language as Elkin lifted another story from the desk and adjusted his glasses to read. He had a way of deconstructing our sentences even as he spoke them, revealing the flaws in the rhythm and vocabulary via barely discernible shifts in inflection. Carol Sklenicka, whose biography of Raymond Carver comes out in 2009 and who recalls that Elkin referred to his classes as “tutorials,” tells me that he once read one of her entire stories aloud to her in private conference, making “every infelicity…show up like a smashed bug on a windshield. This method was brutal and effective,” she says. After much revision, that story became Carol’s first publication.
“Since when is humility an idea??” Elkin might ask, wobbling a little before finally slumping into his seat, his cane choosing that moment to drop with a clatter onto the floor. His wasn’t a studied irreverence; when he got down to the grit in things, we understood he knew it personally. “Will someone tell me what this story is REALLY about? I’ll tell you what it’s not about. It’s not about some loser asshole sitting around pondering the idea of humility. It’s about some loser asshole who is going to die,” he’d say. “You know how I know that?”
Nobody spoke, because we knew he wanted to be the person to tell us the answer.
“I know that this story is about some loser asshole who is going to die because we’re all loser assholes who are going to die and that’s what every halfway decent story is ever about. Should be, anyway.”
Maybe this, then, is why I have no patience for the FEEL GOOD style of writing workshop, the kind where everyone’s supposed to take turns saying what they “like” about a story and what “works” about it before they tear it apart. In Elkin’s hands, in Elkin’s “tutorial”, the tearing apart was an act of respect, a way of paying homage to the sheer amount of effort that either had or hadn’t yet been taken with the manuscript. To find the faults in the work was an act of bowing, literally in Elkin’s case, to the difficulty in store for anyone who wanted to look human shortcoming in the eye and convey the experience via beautiful words on flimsy sheets of onionskin.
But he never dared remind us of this without being funny. Dan Domench, author/ director of the audiobook, Hold Me Fast, remembers that during one of Elkin’s monologues about being the oldest guy in boot camp, laughter echoed down the hallways and then fell silent as “Mr. Elkin lowered his voice and described his isolation, his despair.” Why had he done this to himself? Mr. Elkin asked, going on to describe a twelve hour march with a heavy pack. “He is last in a long line of soldiers,” Dan remembers Elkin’s story. “Soon there is no one near him…He staggers to the top of a hill, half-dead, near the finish, and sees all the young soldiers – it seems like hundreds of them – sitting around waiting for him. He is sure they will curse him, but instead they stand and applaud. He is not sure if there is mockery in the applause, but no matter, the welcome is such a surprise that he savors it. Then he smiled at us, eyebrows raised. He had boxed our ears with a story.”
My own most memorable taste of Elkin’s personal stories came on a gorgeous, chilly morning when I had ridden my bike to his office for conference, fresh out of a regrettable (though I had no regrets) encounter with a jaundiced chain-pipe-smoker who wheezed all night. I hadn’t yet showered; the guy had no soap. Elkin seemed to know exactly where I had been, and the gleam in his eye, though it darkened considerably when he told me of his night, never quite went away.
He was at a party last night, he explained, but he was tired as a dog so he limped down the hall to where the coats had been piled on a bed in the guestroom and laid down among them to doze a while. When he woke it was to the creak of the door. A young lady came in. When I try to remember, now, whether Elkin said “young lady,” somehow I hear him say “broad,” as well, maybe because of the way he imbued every compliment with disparagement and vice versa.
The lady nodded at Elkin, who had lifted his head off the coats to greet her, and then she turned to face the mirror. It was one of those tall oval mirrors on a pretty wooden stand, he couldn’t help but describe. Anyone who has read him knows of his joyous embellishments; if there’s a mirror on the page, it’s a mirror with energy to spare.
The lady hiked up her skirt and fiddled with her garters, redoing each clasp at the tops of her stockings. It was all he could do not to demonstrate this procedure to me in its entirety, but he settled on miming the working of the clasps between the tips of his fingers. “Then she did the other leg. Lifted her skirt hem, showing her naked thighs in the mirror as if I’m not lying there. As if I’m not really A MAN anymore!” Elkin said with a shiver of woundedness, making sure I understood he was scolding me too, for showing up at his office in such fragrant disarray.
After that he proposed that we attempt to levitate an armchair, his way of showing me, I now realize, that the act of levitation as conveyed in a story I’d written was far from adequate. We slid our hands beneath the chair, concentrated, and waited ever so gently for it to rise. After a while we started to push a little, and pull. There we struggled, a thin immature girl and Elkin with his illness, the chair so solid between us we could barely nudge three legs off the ground.
“I think it’s working,” he said.
“I think so too,” I agreed.