Phil Deaver 1946–2018
Phil Deaver died yesterday, April 29th. A mutual friend called me last night with the news. I saw him for the last time two years ago, in the spring of 2016, when I went to visit him in Florida.
Thinking about him, I summon up one of the sweetest men I have even known, full of good intentions and humor. Fiction was everything to him, a religion. He worshipped great fiction writers, especially living ones. Ann Beattie was a good friend. He loved Robert Stone and Richard Ford. He was a fiction writer, to his very core. His first book, Silent Retreats, a book of short stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Award in the late 1980s. He had published a book of poems, How Men Pray, and an anthology about baseball. I always thought he was a better poet than maybe he thought he was or wanted people to think he was. I liked his poetry very much, and I remember how proud he was when Garrison Keillor chose one of his poems to read on The Writer’s Almanac.
He was a great friend, loyal and caring. He was a complex man, and he wore his worries and insecurities on his sleeve. I remember him at Spalding University, in Louisville, where we both taught, how nervous he was among people there, how insecure, wanting to be with people he knew and trusted. He would insist on eating with just three or four people. You couldn’t help but love him and feel protective of him, he was so human.
His father and grandfather had been killed in an automobile accident when he was 18, and that changed him forever and haunted him forever. He told me the story of that day many times, with a matter-of-fact solemnity to it, and I often felt I was there with him when he returned home that day to hear the news from his sister. This was the defining moment of his life, and it never was far from his mind or heart. He worshiped his father, who was a doctor in a small town in Illinois, until his life was cut short.
Phil was raised Catholic, and I don’t think he ever left his faith, despite what he might have claimed. It was deeply there. He had a sense of Catholic guilt about him. He told me that after his father died a group of Catholic elders from his town took him on a silent retreat. It meant a great deal to him. It’s not a coincidence that his first book is titled Silent Retreats. He had a distinct way of talking, a Midwestern drawl with a slow cadence often leading to a bright punctuation of emphasis. He was rooted in the Midwest.
I visited him twice in Florida before he became ill. He arranged a reading for me at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where he taught, and also at a local bookstore. The bookstore reading was lightly attended, and he was mortified. It didn’t bother me that much, having read at quite a few lightly-attended events in my time, but I know how he must have felt. I’ve arranged readings that were sparsely attended. You feel like you’ve let the reader down. He hadn’t, of course. Phil helped other writers, too. He did everything he could through Rollins to aid writers he admired or who he felt were deserving. I remember he brought in a young writer from New Orleans, who had been our student at Spalding, so she could meet with one of her literary heroes, Jamaica Kincaid. This to me is what separates many writers from others. Those who, like Phil, use whatever influence and funds they have, no to mention encouragement, to help emerging writers flourish and those who claim they will help, and don’t. When Phil pledged his help, he kept that pledge. He was always enthusiastic about of my work, in more ways than one.
He and I use to play a ridiculous sort of game where we posed as 1950’s TV cowboy heroes. I was the Cisco Kid, and he was Lash LaRue. Which became simply, Cisco and Lash. We had great fun with that. We’d begin our letters to each other “Dear Lash” or “Dear Cisco.” It meant something to us — that 1950s TV culture that helped raise us in a dull dry era. It was some of the little romance America had back then. We still had the Wild West. We were intrigued by Lash. He used a bullwhip to subdue the bad guys. Think about it.
He loved his children immensely and was immensely proud of them. He went through hard times after he and his first wife divorced. I loved to hear him tell the story of when he was absolutely broke. I mean NO money. He had his children for Christmas or Thanksgiving — forget which — and he didn’t have enough money to buy them a proper dinner. He went to a gas station where they also sold fried chicken in a store run by the station. The man who pumped the gas wouldn’t let him use his gas card to buy the chicken, so he had to return home with no food. Imagine. And he told me the story of being arrested and going to jail for a night or two. I was jealous of that. Phil was not a coarse man in any way. He never talked about sex. He rarely swore. Baseball — he loved baseball. A St. Louis Cardinals fan. He would go to spring training games in Florida.
When I heard from Susan Lilley, his wife at the time, that Phil had suffered a brain disorder, and that, as she put it, the old Phil was slipping away, I wanted to visit him before he slipped away altogether. So, I went to Florida in the spring of 2016 to see him for a few days. It was a sad trip. Part of him was indeed gone, and I think that may be one of the saddest things that can happen to someone we love, to have their corporal selves there, right before you, unchanged, but to have the soul, the self, or much of the self, missing. It didn’t make sense to me — there we were in his house where we had once laughed and bantered for hours — and I kept looking for Phil, the man with who I liked and admired so much and who was a wonderful friend, to appear, but he was not to be found.
Fiction was sacred to him. He was haunted by his Flannery O’Connor Award, weighed down by the burden of promise that honor bestowed on him and not producing another book. So, when he published a new book of short stories, Forty Martyrs, in 2016, a fine book, just a month or so before I visited him, he, and all his friends and admirers, were relieved and happy. His good friend Ann Beattie loved the stories. Phil showed me a letter from her praising the book unreservedly, and he was immensely proud of that praise, which was so clearly sincere, as he should have been. I have an autographed copy. The dedication to his book reads,
In memory of my father,
Philip F. Deaver, M.D.