Wind-swept orphans in Illinois

All the Days and Nights and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, Harvill, pounds 10.99 and pounds 8.99 respectively

What noise do clocks make? "Tick/tock tick/tock". And horses? "Clop, clop, clopty clop". And how would you describe the Outer Hebrides? They're "wind-swept islands". It's obvious. Rather too obvious, you might think, yet in William Maxwell's fiction, these are the noises clocks and horses make, and poor orphan girls do indeed come from the "wind-swept" Outer Hebrides. For Maxwell, the obvious is not necessarily to be scorned.

To an extent, that's because his subject matter is, precisely, the obvious - those small incidents that make a life; and then those small lives that make a community. Maxwell's community is very specific: Lincoln, the town in Illinois where he was born in 1908. It is where Maxwell's imagination is most at home, preferably in the past, which "is always being plowed under". His fiction is a means of preserving some of the shards turned over by that plough.

The distance between narrator and author, even in autobiography, is always difficult to judge, and Maxwell intriguingly makes it more difficult. Over and over again, he tells us that his mother died when he was a child; that his father was in insurance; that his elder brother got his leg trapped in the wheel of a buggy, and had to have it amputated. We presume these details represent autobiographical fact, but as Maxwell writes in the 1991 story "The Front and the Back Parts of the House", this is only a starting-point: "Early on in the writing...the characters took over, and had so much to say to one another that mostly what I did was record their conversation."

For 40 years, Maxwell was an editor, mostly of fiction, at the New Yorker. He he must have come into contact with acres of well-scrubbed prose, and no doubt he did some scrubbing himself. Unsurprisingly, his own fiction would sit well in the New Yorker, where the novella So Long, See You Tomorrow first appeared. Throughout the two books, the tone is moderate and well-behaved, like the characters.

In Maxwell's collected stories, All the Days and Nights, that eventually becomes oppressive as we find ourselves in a comfortably detached small town where a house might have a two-car, or even a five-car garage; and where coloured maids are commonplace. This is a placid, comfortable world in which all is for the best, even when it goes wrong: "I think if it is true that we are all in the hands of God, what a capacious hand it must be."

There is a kind of complacency here that So Long, See You Tomorrow manages to undercut by that most reliable device, a murder - a passionless crime passionel in which a poor farmer exacts revenge for his wife's adultery by killing her lover. The murderer's son, a friend of the narrator, is whisked away, and a few years later our storyteller meets him at school in Chicago; but the two pass each other by without a word. That failure of compassion haunts him into adulthood. He tries to make sense of it by imagining the events leading up to the murder.

.There are times when Maxwell's characters seem to be living the placid, mildly neurotic lives lampooned in New Yorker cartoons, but in this novella there is a real sense of pain, of lives that go wrong and how we struggle to cope. For that I'm prepared to live with clocks that tick-tock and horses that clop-clop.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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