In the awful middle of the night hours right after Gerry’s death, when I couldn’t concentrate on anything and was wondering how I was going to get through the night, much less the rest of my life, it occurred to me that the one thing I could do was reread Gerry’s stories, and they comforted me so much.
Talk about the power of stories — it was like hearing his voice. The opening passages of all of Gerry’s stories invite you in, immediately, to mysterious worlds filled with strange and funny and tragic characters. (“There were many geniuses at the Museum of the Mind, but Eliott Suskind wasn’t one of them.” “When the phone rang, Rosenthal was kicking a canvas to shreds in the middle of his studio.” “A call came for Schanzer from the San Francisco Zoo. ‘We want you,’ they told him over the phone. ‘We’ve heard you’re one of the best.’”)
More than almost anything, my husband Gerald Shapiro loved stories. He’d been hired by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to teach fiction writing, which he did brilliantly, but he also developed one of the English department’s most popular courses, Jewish American fiction. Throughout his career — and that included teaching up until the day before he died — he always reread the stories and novels he was going to teach that week, even if he’d read them a dozen times before.
He was always saying to me, “This is such a great story! I love this story!” Abraham Cahan, I. B. Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Tillie Olsen, Stanley Elkin, Grace Paley, Steve Stern, and so many others — he loved them all. There aren’t many Jews in Nebraska, so for most of the students in his class, this was their first exposure to these writers, but they grew to love the stories too, because he loved them.
Gerry’s own stories were so wonderful that I used to wish he could find a way to spend more time on his own writing, instead of preparing so tirelessly for his classes, reading his students’ work so carefully, spending so many hours in his office talking to students about their writing and their lives. (“He told us he cared so much about our stories it kept him up at night,” one student wrote after his death.)
When the letters and e-mails and phone calls from his students flooded in after his death, I realized I’d been wrong in wanting him to focus more on his own writing. Even when his health began to fail, even when he had to know his time was limited, he always lived as if there were enough time for it all: for me, for his friends, for his students, for cooking, for giving parties. When I read and reread the booklet of student memories that two of Gerry’s graduate students compiled — a labor of love if there ever was one, for which I will always be grateful — a clear theme emerges: Gerry’s generosity.
“He was the perfect host. He had a way of making you feel that you were his honored guest,” one student wrote. And this: “It’s a question of orientation: Gerry’s was forever outward, beyond himself. In a profession where so much was asked of him all the time — letters of recommendation, committee appointments, commentaries on work in progress, attendance at readings and other events — Gerry gave without calculation. He gave, and he baked. His breads were gifts to his students, to the people he invited into his home, to the family he and Judy made in Lincoln. Even his chicken liver pate tasted like a radical act of love.” And this: “He fed us his good food, helped push our cars out of snowdrifts, and nourished our writerly spirits with praise and perspective.”
The perfect host — he was that. He loved to give parties, and he brought so much food to his classes that they too seemed like parties, celebrating the act of reading and writing stories.
His own stories were gifts to us all, and though it would have been wonderful to have more of them, the ones he did write bear rereading again and again, out loud if possible, to hear the lines of dialogue from the hapless and sad and funny characters he called his “interesting failures,” to hear the perfect comic timing, to hear the music of the language (here’s another great opening line, one he thought of while driving, and repeated it over and over to himself till he’d memorized it, so as not to lose it before he could get home and type it: “Although he’d been raised far away from the place, in his thirties Schrank moved to the city of his father’s poverty-stricken youth, and settled down in luxury along its exquisite and privileged lakeshore”). When you read Gerry’s stories, you hear his voice, still alive and strong.
Judith Slater is the author of the short story collection “The Baby Can Sing and Other Stories.”