- Remembering John L'Heureux
John L'Heureux, who died this past April, was an exquisite writer—to the very end; a master teacher; a deeply thoughtful man of faith; and a mentor, in the most profound sense of the word. He carried himself with more innate dignity than any person I have ever known—in his manner of speech, the ideas he imparted, even the way he dressed: always in newly shined shoes and an elegant sports coat. When he taught my workshop at Stanford, I'm pretty sure he was the only one in the classroom wearing gold cuff links.
John also read more, knew more about, and better understood American Jewish literature than almost any other former Jesuit priest I know. I remember countless lunches with him, talking about Paley and Ozick and Pearlman and being awed by the depth of his understanding not only of their technical skills but of their experiences—for good and bad—as Americans and as Jews. Before I encountered Grace Paley's stories as an undergraduate, I had never before seen the older generations of my family depicted [End Page 773] on the page. She captured it all: the role of women in supposedly progressive movements, the way politics could seamlessly slide from the kitchen table to the playground and out into the world. Paley had utter compassion for every one of her characters. She was deeply funny without ever resorting to meanness. She wrote political stories, but they were never didactic. John intuited all that, but rather than simply praising her, he wanted to talk about how she accomplished these things. Prior to talking Paley with John, I felt I understood her because her characters were the closest I'd come to finding my relatives in literature. The more we talked, the clearer it became that John understood her work on a different level—he was engaging with it through a thorough exploration of what was happening on the page. And through our discussions I came to appreciate Paley less because her characters were recognizable to me and more for her impeccable craft—which John could parse with Talmudic nuance.
At some point it occurred to me that if John could talk this way with me about my favorite writers, he could probably do the same with anyone else in the workshop about theirs. And he could. John spoke with erudition about Southern literature, Japanese fiction, European experimentalists, but especially, it turned out, about The Sopranos, a show he analyzed in minute—and brilliant—detail, and which he considered on par with Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.
John was my very first teacher when I arrived for the Stegner Fellowship in 2006, and I was incredibly nervous. When the director called with the news of my fellowship, my first thought was: this must be a mistake. She must have meant to call the other Molly Antopol. I was convinced everyone belonged in that room but me, that I was the one impostor there. But the moment I walked into that first workshop with John, the moment I understood how he ran the class—well, it would be a lie to say those impostor feelings [End Page 774] melted away; even now, thirteen years later, I still have them every day when I sit at my computer, but suffice to say they were quieted. John, of course, had a unique aesthetic in his own writing. Take, for example, the opening to his extraordinary story, "The Long Black Line," published last year in The New Yorker:
Finn said an awkward goodbye to his parents and watched them drive off in the new Buick they had bought in case he changed his mind. They were pleased, of course, at Finn's decision to study for the priesthood, but they were wary, too. It was 1954, and priests were still thought to be holy, and Finn … well … Finn knew that he wasn't holy, but during a retreat in college he had succumbed to a fit of piety and, dizzied by the idea of sacrifice, applied to join the Jesuits. They had put him through a series of interviews, and let him know that...