Stanley Elkin proved remarkably supportive and generous with me, c. 1977 in Boston. He’d come to town as a visiting writer at Boston U., just another of the amazing lineup (Barth, Barthelme [Donald], Cheever [alcoholic, alas], more…) brought in by George Starbuck while he was running the writing program. I was a recent graduate and still spending a lot of time in the department, while freelancing as a teacher and writer in town. I’d read a couple of his novellas, stuff that later wound up in Searches & Seizures and The Living End, and I’d started A Bad Man after seeing Gass recommend it in one of his essays, then had it snitched off my seat by a stranger on the MBTA.
The photo used elsewhere on Big Other is the figure I recall. Elkin and I met at a department function and, drink in hand, he proved a delightful sourpuss, for instance regarding his friend Bill Gass. ”Listen,” he groused, “I’ve written better novels than Bill ever will.” This with obvious fondness! And energy, too — this was before Elkin’s MS put him in a walker. I don’t even recall seeing him with a cane.
Anyway, something about me appealed to him (I remember him agreeing with some advice I gave one of his students, something about not taking enough chances), and he agreed to look at a new story of mine. This when he already had 15 students in a workshop, understand. He gave me the address of his university apartment, a studio near his office. He told me to drop the MS off any afternoon and when I showed up with my manila envelope, he was in his bathrobe. No standing on ceremony. So too, I later saw him, in his BU office, drafting by hand in, of all things, an exam-style Blue Book. Without the least compunction, he told me it was a new novel, one he was “having a terrible time with” — then told me the title, George Mills. Perhaps his single most-honored book, once he saw his way through to the end.
As for my story, we worked on it, I don’t know, ten days later? This was in his office. He didn’t have many edits or suggestions, really, and that was gratifying. I’ll spare you his kind words, brusque but kind. Rather, what matters was the one significant change he proposed — a plot adjustment towards the end — which struck me as sweetly fitting. When the MS came back from its latest submission, I worked out the new angle Stanley suggested, then began putting it out on the rounds again. The New Yorker, I remember, didn’t like the change; the editor reading me, there, preferred the original. But where did the piece wind up if not The Paris Review? ”Laugh Kookaberry, Laugh Kookaberry, Gay Your Life Must Be,” Winter 1980, perhaps my Greatest Hit, still.
For that alone, to be sure, I’d be forever in Stanley Elkin’s debt. Yet he also recommended me to his agent, Georges Borchardt, and that man and I corresponded a while ( though it would be years and years before I had a novel ready). Above all, though, I remember the writer for what he showed me at first encounter: a tough-mindedness suffused, somehow, with great humanity. To hear him rail against Gordon Lish was wonderfully bracing. He regaled me and anyone else who cared to listen with the story of how he pulled “The Bailbondsman” from Esquire rather than submit to Lish’s edits, and the story always burned with both hard-headed integrity and high artistic sensibility. Go thou, the parable always concluded, and do likewise. Mr. Elkin, I’ve tried, thanks in large part to you.