William Maxwell writes in the small spaces. He explores the little sad areas of our lives that are comprised of looks that are not returned, thoughts that remain unuttered because we simply cannot figure out how to say them, and embraces we wish we have shared but did not because we lack the courage to put our arms around the person we love. Early Novels and Stories, the Library of America's first of two volumes due to be published in 2008 to celebrate the centenary of Maxwell's birth, is a beautiful, melancholy collection of mostly short works by an author whose understated value has sadly caused a lack of popular appreciation compared to his flashier contemporaries - Hemingway, Nabokov, Bellow, Updike, Roth.
The collection is split into two novellas, two novels, one essay and nine short stories. There are also two appendices, very short pieces which were written by an elderly Maxwell as introductions to They Came Like Swallows and Time Will Darken It. These appendices are not critical examinations of his work so much as pieces of fond nostalgia; small bright nuggets of memory and happiness which serve as a springboard for, in the introduction to They Came Like Swallows, an anecdote concerning F Scott Fitzgerald, and in the introduction to Time Will Darken It, the young novelistís astonishing realization that the very best characters are the ones that speak to you and direct the action themselves. They are not the meat of the work but the dessert, two short, sweet pieces which serve as a more than satisfactory conclusion to the main thrust of the collection, which are the narratives.
Bright Center of Heaven, written when Maxwell was only twenty-six, bears all the hallmarks of a young, talented man biting off far, far more than he could possibly chew. While technically proficient - the sentences do, after all, make sense - the novella fails by having weak characters, very little plot, and a poorly thought-out climax involving a black academic being heckled by a white family in their home. Yes, Maxwell was attempting to comment on the race situation of America in the early twentieth century, which is in itself an admirable enough goal, but he did not yet have the literary chops to pull it off. There are, however, flashes of insight scattered throughout the text, from Cynthia the painter and her difficulty with art to the bizarrely named Nigel's difficulty in informing her partner she is pregnant. These characters are dealt with in poignant, evocative sections which unfortunately the rest of the novella does not manage to equal.
Moving on from Bright Center of Heaven - a novella which William Maxwell suppressed publication of throughout his life - is They Came Like Swallows. This novella, only one hundred and thirty pages long, is very good indeed. It focuses on the three men of the Morison family as they deal with the death of their mother and wife from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Maxwell himself lost his mother when he was ten; he used this story to explore the range of feelings which he experienced upon her death. This novella is split into three sections: one for Bunny, the youngest boy; one for Robert, the eldest child and a strong though confused young man who suffers from a wooden leg; and James, the grieving husband. The majority of the novella focuses on Robert, capturing his sadness and determination with a surety of hand that was missing from Bright Center of Heaven. Maxwell is supremely sympathetic in his portrayal of Robert, who feels he caused his mother death after she caught his flu:
'He did not have to be told what had happened. He knew already. During the night while he was sleeping, she got worse. Then she did not have an even chance, like the doctor said. And she died. His mother was dead.' This is the matter-of-fact tone of a child in shock, unable yet to understand the why of what has occurred but fully aware of the what.
The Folded Leaf is, to my tastes, the masterpiece of this collection. It is the story of Lymie and Spud, two young boys who share a strong friendship even though they seem utterly different, primarily told from the perspective of Lymie, a shy, withdrawn, introverted and very sensitive young man who loves Spud with all of his heart. Spud, on the other hand, is something of a strongman, an athlete who does not understand but is able to appreciate the sensitivity of his friend. They complement one another, with Lymie taking security from Spud's strength, while Spud draws another kind of strength from his friend.
The two boys love one another, with Lymie's love much the stronger, but the love remains platonic. It is the casual, affectionate, innocently physical love of young boys who become college men understanding that there is nobody else in the world more compatible with them than the other. A girl, of course, shatters this, but even though Spud may lose that first blush of pre-sexual affection, Lymie does not. The novel moves very slowly from the boys' strong relationship to a rather one-sided, heartbreaking examination of what happens when one friend moves on and the other cannot.
Is the story a homosexual one? It is hard to say. Spud and Lymie are physically affectionate, going so far as to spend almost their entire college life sleeping in the same bed. Note: Sleeping. While there is a lot left unsaid about Lymie's true feelings - he wonders, every now and again, when he shall meet a woman of his own to marry, but the wondering is academic rather than passionate - my reading of the novel is that Maxwell was happy to remain ambiguous. Lymie is very much in love, and it is to the author's credit that the love does not have to be defined as sexual or emotional - it is simply what we see on the page. I highly doubt Lymie would have considered his feelings for Spud as anything wrong, and Spud - athletic, not very intelligent, given to boisterousness - certainly has no problem with his diminutive friend.
Maxwell shines the brightest when he is delving into Lymie's thoughts. We understand most of the novelís scenes, from their school days to when they bunk together at university to when Spud becomes a (rather ignoble) boxer to Spud's engagement with Sally, from Lymie's perspective, allowing us to see the friendship in a way that Spud, and an outsider, never would. Consider this long quote:
'Lymie didn't know what the trouble was, but he was not dismayed. He had worn Spud down once before and he was sure he could do it again. Every day between four-fifteen and four-thirty he appeared at the gymnasium and stood a few feet away from the punching bag where Spud, if he wanted his gloves tied on or any small service like that, wouldn't have to go far to find him. When Spud came up from the showers, Lymie was there waiting by the locker, like a faithful hound. He made no move to open the lock, or to touch anything inside the locker that belonged to Spud. Occasionally while Spud was dressing and afterward on the way home, Lymie would say something to him, but Lymie was always careful not to put the remark in the form of a question, so there was no actual need for Spud to reply.' This is unrequited love at its most honest. Sadly for Lymie, Spud of course does not appreciate the layers of meaning and feeling behind Lymie's behavior, and of course there is conflict that ends in tears. The novel ends the only way it should, but there is hope for the friendship and hope for Lymie, forced by circumstance to face the reality that even though his boyhood love may never have lost its intensity of feeling, Spud's certainly has.
The final long piece in the collection is Time Will Darken It. This novel explores the life of Austin King, a good man living in a neighborhood given to the destructive vice of gossip and tale-telling. Austin is kind, sensible, generous, encouraging and sensitive to others, which of course means he is consistently misunderstood. From his wife to his friends to his work colleague Holby, his positive, helpful decisions and actions cause difficulty and problems in people who are themselves unable to appreciate or understand the good in another human. This novel functions at something of a remove from the in-the-skull narration of The Folded Leaf, instead focusing first on Austin and then on his wife, one of his friends, an old man down the street, and so on. This allows Maxwell a greater breadth of examination, but it also has the unfortunate difficulty of never truly letting us in to Austin's mind.
Which is not to say the novel is all bad. Not at all - it is merely a sapphire next to the diamond that is The Folded Leaf. Time Will Darken It is very sad from every perspective as characters fail to understand each other again and again. Nominally about a young girl's failed love for Austin and the gossip it creates about the town, the novel is really about the tiny misunderstandings of married and familial life which, added together, cause catastrophe. Consider Austin's wife, Martha, who is looking at her husband while they are in bed: 'She was rewarded with a look that said quite plainly: "I am married to a stranger and there is no possibility of ever coming to terms with her."' And the ending, unbearably sad, touches on the same ambiguity and missed 'ships in the night' theme of the whole.
To round out this long review there are several short stories and an essay. The short stories are good, but they serve as miniature platforms from which Maxwell perfected the craft that would go into his larger works. They begin in 1938, when Maxwell was thirty, and end in 1956, when he was forty-eight. But what they really show is a neophyte author transforming himself into a master of his craft. Certainly recommended reading, they are nonetheless overshadowed by the majesty of the larger works. Finally, the essay, 'The Writer as Illusionist' sketches out Maxwell's belief in the tasks a writer must perform if he or she wishes to remain honest to their work. He says that any author knows they are merely telling lies, creating illusions, and it is up to them to make those illusions so real they convince even the teller. An author is most blessed when their characters run away from them and cavort on the page by themselves.
This Library of America edition of William Maxwell's early work is simply outstanding. He is a phenomenally sensitive author, equipped to deal with the most subtle nuances that are found in every relationship in a way that remains sympathetic and understanding to every party. He does not take sides but he explores, allowing each voice adequate space to justify themselves. Very much recommended, this collection is readable and beautiful, fully justifying John Updike's endorsement of Maxwell as 'one of the wisest [voices] in American fiction...as well as one of the kindest.'