The Barnes & Noble Review
It was a cold, rainy day in Cleveland. Although I love Cleveland with the depth and breadth of my soul, I will concede this does not narrow it down. It was also the day I met Charles Baxter, whose work I'd admired for years, ever since I stayed up all night reading "First Light" and finished it and bawled my eyes out even though the ending isn't sad and I am not a crier, having only once in the two decades of my adult life sobbed over something that happened to me. I am not proud of this. I know that some readers may already be questioning how deep or broad my soul could possibly be. In my defense, I grew up in a small town in the American Midwest. So did Charles Baxter, although he and I have never discussed our crying habits.
I had invited Baxter to come give a reading at the university at which I then taught, and he and I had spent the day doing the usual classroom-visit stuff. Now we were driving the rain-slick streets of Cleveland, having just come from a bookstore where Baxter had signed copies of his then-new novel "Shadow Play."
Somehow we got started talking about writers who rarely get taught anymore or even get talked about much but who are better than many of those writers who do. My candidates were obvious: people like John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Richard Yates, and Peter Taylor. Baxter's list was smarter and more obscure. I don't remember everyone he mentioned, only that when he mentioned William Maxwell and I lied and said, "Gee, that name rings a bell," Baxter's eyes got big.
"Turn the car around," he said. "Excuse me?" "Go back to thatbookstore," he said. "If they have a copy of "They Came Like Swallows," I'll buy it for you."
Baxter had heretofore struck me as forthrightly sane, in that peculiarly midwestern way. I looked at my watch. "I don't know," I said, meaning that the time for Baxter's reading was closing in, and we had dinner reservations. "Won't take but a minute," he said.
And so I threw my car into a U-turn and we went back. The store did not have the book or anything at all by William Maxwell. "I'll read it," I said. "I promise." He nodded. We were midwestern men who had publicly expressed and heard expressed our passions. Time to go get a nice meal.
William Maxwell may be the definitive writer's writer. He's a masterful, accessible writer whose name comes up frequently in writers' shoptalk. He's also been a great friend to and booster of other writers. From 1936 to 1976, he was a fiction editor at The New Yorker, which allowed him to aid and abet the writing careers of such giants as John O'Hara, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, Frank O'Connor, Mary McCarthy, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams, and John Updike.
Unlike most of the authors he edited (including all of the above), Maxwell was an American midwesterner. He was born and raised in Lincoln, Illinois, and his books are profoundly midwestern things: full of unquaint farms, befuddled dogs, sensitive paperboys, earnest churchgoers, and disappointed old people. His work is wildly emotional without ever on the surface seeming to be so. Even his publishing history is humble in a midwestern way; Maxwell published his own acclaimed short stories for 30 years before he agreed to publish his first collection (OVER BY THE RIVER, which came out in 1977, right after he retired from The New Yorker).
I did read "They Came Down Like Swallows," a sharply observed, unsentimental child's-eye view of his mother's dying, and I admired but for some reason did not fall in love with the book. The same strange effect that tempers passion in books you are assigned to read for a class can affect books pressed upon you with evangelical zeal (this doesn't stop me from evangelically pressing books on people). I blame myself.
When Maxwell's (highly recommended) collected stories, "All the Days & Nights," came out in 1994, reviewers stood to write benedictions for the career of the octogenarian Maxwell. These raves, I fear, made readers avoid Maxwell's book. Nobody likes a critics' pet. It's like being outside of a club you didn't know existed and being invited in by snooty people who wouldn't talk to you in high school or, worse, who live in New York City. At least that's how it is if you are an American midwesterner.
This attention, though, prompted Vintage to reissue most of Maxwell's books, and it was with one of these, the magnificent short novel "So Long, See You Tomorrow," that I became a Maxwell acolyte. I am, for this book's sake, willing to turn cars around to buy copies for new friends.
The book concerns a murder on an Illinois farm in the 1920s and, principally, that murder's consequence on the livingthe families in particular, the town in general. The book is told, a half-century later, from the point of view of a friend of the murderer's son, and a tiny act of schoolkid betrayal for which, all these years later, the narrator can't quite forgive himself. The climax of the book is, without seeming for a nanosecond to be a gimmick or in any way sentimental, told from the perspective of a dog.
"What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory," says the narrator, early in the novel, "...is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw."
What truthful lies! The book is simple, wise, unmelodramatic and gripping, as rich in its 140 pages as most books three times that long. I read it, grunting with pleasure, pain, and writerly envy so often that my wife kept checking to see if I was okay. I said I was. My wife is from Cleveland. Cleveland is the easternmost part of the American Midwest. As I finished the book, she did not ask why I was crying, though she has not often seen me do this. And that is why I love my wife.Mark Winegardner