’Beloved by so many:’ Ed McClanahan’s great writing, personality will live on.

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  • Ed McClanahan
    American writer

The Herald-Leader’s Linda Blackford has already published an outstanding homage to novelist, short story writer and essayist Ed McClanahan, who passed away in Lexington last week at 89.

Ed was beloved by so many people that I imagine more tributes will follow, some by folks who knew him better and even longer than I did, although I knew him roughly 40 years. He kept his friends a long time.

Still, I want to add my voice to the praise for this wonderful man.

In late 1982 or early 1983, he came to the University of Kentucky to read from his forthcoming novel, “The Natural Man” and I decided to go.

I was at the time making the transition from non-traditional undergraduate student (I’d partied my way from UK to a janitor’s job on my initial go-round in the mid-1970s) to first-year graduate student. I had a pregnant wife and was so poor I would have needed to find a $100 bill on the sidewalk to be broke. Life was pretty somber.

But when Ed launched into his performance that night—it was indeed a performance, not a dry academic recitation—I came unglued. He waved his arms. He did the voices of his characters. He laughed at his own lines. He even sang. I howled, slapped the table, stomped my feet. Tears dripped down my cheeks.

I couldn’t control myself, because “The Natural Man” captured exquisitely the insular world from which I’d sprung, that of a boy growing up in a small Kentucky town, with all the attendant rewards, absurdities and humiliations thereof. Incongruously, Ed had cast the tale in the grandiloquent cadences of 19th Century Victorians—yet as a side-splitting comedy. I’d never heard anything quite like it.

Somehow he revealed the beauty and the pathos lying just beneath the surface of life’s brutish, trivial indignities. I still haven’t recovered.

Later, he taught briefly at UK. He let me audit one of his classes. I offered him things I’d written, and he actually read them, and praised them extravagantly. He made me think I could write, too.

It wasn’t just me. He was kind to other students, including my friend Chris Holbrook, who went on to become a world-class short story writer.

Ed listened to us. He met us for beers and burgers and camaraderie. A raconteur of the highest order, he regaled us with tales of his psychedelic days in California, carousing with the hippies, including Ken Kesey.

He exhibited the same self-deprecating humor in person that permeated “The Natural Man.” His jokes were on him. There seemed to be no malice about him.

And unlike other mortals, Ed never appeared to be in a bad mood. I’m sure he was at times, who isn’t, but I never witnessed it. He was always flashing that warm, toothy smile. He treated sophomores or sultans alike with gentleness.

He kept on doing all those things long after he left UK and long after I and my fellow acolytes had graduated. Up until the pandemic started, I still ran into him at lunches or dinners with other artsy souls from around Lexington, especially Chris.

One of my favorite memories of Ed doesn’t strictly have much to do with him. He and his wife, Hilda, had invited Chris and me over to their house. We were sitting around the living room talking.

From my chair, I could see into the next room. I watched the McClanahans’ enormous Great Dane pick up their arthritic old cat headfirst in its mouth and start bouncing it.

Alarmed, I said, “Ed, your dog is eating the cat. He’s about to swallow it.”

Ed paused the story he was telling. “Oh, they’re just playing,” he said. “They do that all the time.” He resumed his story.

Dubious, I side-eyed the animals, waiting for the cat to disappear in a single gulp. But a minute later the dog spat out the kitty like the whale depositing Jonah on shore. The soggy cat hobbled away.

When you were around Ed, funny things like that just happened.

The nicest thing I could do for you is encourage you to dig up some of his books posthaste. He was a magician with words.

Who else could describe his novel’s protagonist as “a slouching, shambling, gangling tangle of ganglia, an almost-senior at Burdock County High, not yet sixteen, still bespectacled and modestly precocious, though not half so smart as he thought he was.”

“The Natural Man” remains easily among the 10 best novels I’ve ever read, and probably the funniest.

His second book, “Famous People I Have Known,” includes, among other gems, a version of his prize-winning essay on Lexington rocker Little Enis, who billed himself as the world’s greatest all-American left-handed upside-down guitar player:

“Enis took to flattery like a duck to water, poor innocent. All I had to do was buy him a seventy-five-cent Zebra Zombie at his first break between sets and advise him that, as a noted folklorist from the university (where, in fact, I was currently pulling a low C in the only folklore class I ever enrolled in), I was satisfied that he and his understudy Elvis constituted the single most cosmic event in the history of American ethnosecular music (a genre which I invented on the spot), and that I was prepared to embark on a study of him which was a cinch to make us both as famous as Silly Putty.”

But really, dive into his oeuvre anywhere, from “A Congress of Wonders” to “My Vita, If You Will.” Ed was the best, as a writer and as a man.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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