It was such glorious fun to be Stanley Elkin’s friend as well as his reader. He was always wonderfully irreverent and free of sentimentality. Hence the questionably qualified rabbi (in The Rabbi of Lud) who attends an offshore yeshiva in the Maldive Islands, and likens the services of a “Traveling Minyan” to Meals-on Wheels and the U.S. Postal Service in one breathless paragraph. Stanley was the same way in conversation—fast, articulate and outrageously funny. Once, when a cousin of his mentioned that an elderly relative was in diapers, and Joan Elkin said she’d want to be shot if that happened to her, Stanley immediately quipped, “Not me. I’d want to be changed.”
He was notoriously tough on students, and anyone self-proclaimed as sensitive would be gleefully compared to a heavy duty radial tire. His competitiveness was legendary. He was only half-kidding when he expressed pleasure at another writer’s bad reviews and/or poor sales. Yet when he admired something in your work, he’d tell you so in generous terms. And Stanley was deeply romantic and filled with sentiment about the people and places he loved. Nothing made him happier, he said, than to sit in his own living room and look at Joan’s paintings. When I visited him in St. Louis, he pointed out the Gateway Arch with affectionate pride and no jokes about McDonald’s. He accepted his lousy medical lot (a bum heart and progressive MS) because he believed it was outweighed by his passion for life. That passion resonates in his work, even in his darkest fiction.
Hilma Wolitzer is the author of thirteen books, most recently, Summer and Reading, from Ballantine Books.