There are those people, you know the ones, people you’ve known maybe for years, that you might not see regularly now, or you run into serendipitously, at the grocery store, in the hallway at work. And they have no idea—would be shocked in fact—but inadvertently, just by being themselves, they number among the architects and engineers of your world. Because there is something about their sensibility you resonate with. Not just their intelligence, their wit, their achievements, or any of the things you admire about the people you admire. You’re simpatico, is one way I’ve heard it described; you’re in sync, others would say. However you want to put it, there is something of a cornerstone in what they have given you over the years, slowly accreting with each offhand comment, each text exchange, each essay or story or poem they wrote that you liked, something that validates who you are also, or who you’d like to be. And so when they are suddenly no longer there, your own life loses its structural integrity, and you find yourself off balance in the most fundamental way. You keep trying to mentally populate that empty space your friend left, as if trying to keep your very self together.
I had known Steve McNutt since grad school—we both went through the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program in the mid-aughts, though he graduated two years after me and we may not even have taken a class together—but started to get to know him better through an essay he published in The Iowa Review in 2010. Titled “SUV Vs. Bike, SUV Wins,” it details a grim bike accident that he survived, but it is far from a grim essay; instead it’s stamped with his trademark light and sardonic, brainy and philosophical touch. The essay was later anthologized in TIR’s high-school reader, Discoveries, which led to further correspondence. After that, I’d see him around town in Iowa City, where we both stayed on after getting our MFAs; we both earned PhDs, got jobs, bought houses; he occasionally sent me writing; I gave my husband a funny T-shirt he designed.
In November 2018, he emailed a group of family and friends informing us of his cancer diagnosis. True to form, he signed off with, “Go Cubs?” Through the meals-and-errands group that his friend and colleague Megan Knight set up, I saw him several times, and he happened to mention a novel manuscript he had. I read it, liked it intensely, forwarded it to others, and had the pleasure, on May 13 of this year, of texting him that it had been officially accepted for publication as part of the Iowa Review Series in Fiction at University of Iowa Press. His response: “holy fuck,” followed by “for real?”
We had lunch at The Dandy Lion on the Ped Mall. I met his partner Jessica, visiting from Hawaii, where he longed to move. (This photo from last summer shows them exploring the islands.) He went off to his monthly treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. There were more texts about authors, about writing, about revision. To my last one there was no response, but I saw him post on Facebook the following week, so I wasn’t too concerned. The Monday after that, Jess announced on Facebook that he was in hospice. He passed away that Friday evening, July 5, 2019, at the age of 47.
Here’s something Steve wrote for a writing workshop assignment back in the day, courtesy of his friend and classmate Bern Esposito. The students were asked to “translate" Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd," for those of us who attended Sunday school eons ago, or never). Steve’s translation was classic Steve:
Humans must consider themselves fortunate in fully understanding the unnecessary nature of temporal desires. Free will is an inescapable fallacy, as a spiritual being is in effective control of our circumstances. The calming capacity of pleasant environments is provided and required. Necessary restoration of the spirit can be expected without enumeration. While the potential for our own extinction remains present, we should not be concerned with those who would do us harm; preemptive measures are already in place to guarantee safe passage. It is an objective truth that the sanctity of our life is observed and protected in a manner commensurate to our value, which is high, and this feels great.