In William Maxwell’s Fiction, a Vivid, Varied Tableau of Midwestern Life

In William Maxwell’s Fiction, a Vivid, Varied Tableau of Midwestern Life

Maxwell’s debut novel, “Bright Center of Heaven,” which he declined to reprint during his lifetime (it can be found in the first volume of the Library of America edition published in 2008), is set at a Meadowland, Wis., estate that serves as a guesthouse and impromptu artists’ colony for a motley collection of creative and intellectual types. Their messy ways of mixing up sex, emotion, politics and work — the self-involvement, the idealism, the hypocrisy — are likely to seem familiar, and Maxwell’s satirical view of the limits of what we might now call wokeness has hardly dated. The hectic plot, laid out over the course of a single day, spins toward the arrival of Jefferson Carter, a Black writer and traveling lecturer. His presence brings out the worst in everyone, proceeding through a welter of microaggressions toward a climactic shouting match that is both hilarious and sad. “If they weren’t all mad,” Jefferson thinks as the evening unravels, “then their conduct was inexcusable.”

And they are all mad in their way. The racial neurosis of white people — not fragility so much as a defensive, anxious need to brush aside problems and talk about something else — is something Maxwell returns to, notably in “The Chateau,” in which his alter ego, Harold Rhodes, challenges the reflexive racism of some French acquaintances. “They are a wonderful people,” he says of Black Americans. “They have the virtues — the sensibility, the patience, the emotional richness — we lack. And if the distinction between the two races becomes blurred, as it has in Martinique, and they become one race, then America will be saved.”

The inadequacies of this kind of liberalism interest Maxwell, and so do its graces. The story “Billie Dyer,” about a real-life resident of Lincoln a generation older than Maxwell — the son of a laundress who fought in World War I and became a prominent doctor — is a chronicle of Black upward mobility and white civic benevolence set at a time of discrimination, violence and segregation.

If it’s something of an exaggeration to claim a spot for “Bright Center of Heaven” on a syllabus devoted to race in American literature, it’s less of a stretch to inscribe Maxwell’s third book, “The Folded Leaf,” into the pre-Stonewall history of the queer American novel. Published in 1945, three years before Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” (often cited, not least by Vidal himself, as the first modern gay novel), “The Folded Leaf” follows the romantic friendship of Lymie and Spud through high school and the first part of college. Lymie is slight of build, shy and bookish, while Spud is athletic, outgoing and unacademic. They meet in a swimming class and become inseparable, sharing confidences, meals and, once they move to campus, a bed in a rooming house full of undergraduate men.

Their bond is not explicitly sexual, and both pursue romances with girls, but it has an unmistakable — and, for Lymie, an overwhelming — erotic intensity. The world, in the shape of Spud’s busy family and Lymie’s morose, widowed father, accepts the relationship without quite acknowledging what it means, and the narrator is both candid and circumspect. As in “Time Will Darken It,” sexuality is less a matter of secrecy, shame and silence than of implication and indirection. What goes on between the two young men is both obvious and mysterious, and Maxwell’s treatment of it shows a sophistication and sensitivity that 21st-century writers might envy and learn from.

The most timely of Maxwell’s books at the moment is surely “They Came Like Swallows,” one of a handful of enduring literary works about the influenza epidemic of 1918-20. Maxwell was 10 when his mother, Blossom, died of the flu, a trauma that he reconstructed 18 years later with devastating precision. The disease creeps into the story via newspaper headlines and local gossip, a tiny detail among the routines of Midwestern, middle-class family life.

As he does in most of his novels, Maxwell favors portraiture over plot, generating a sense of momentum by shifting among distinctive points of view, in this case the mother-attached younger son, Bunny; his self-confident older brother, Robert; and their father, a dutiful, slightly stiff businessman. The males flutter around their wife and mother, who is pregnant and whose loving, witty presence infuses the family circle (which also includes aunts, in-laws, grandparents and close friends). And then she’s gone, leaving the world in a state of permanent imbalance.

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