Mismatched buddies probe the deep heart of man

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell Harvill pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
The Illinois-born writer, William Maxwell, has turned 90, as will his friend Eudora Welty in April, whose work he edited for the New Yorker (he was fiction editor for 40 years). Together they stand as senior representatives of that fine American literary humanist tradition which offers reverent acceptance of human complexity and life's unpredictability, while helping to make existence more bearable through scenes that blaze with charity and an agnostic's sense of the numinous.

Surprisingly, considering the strong affinities of both Maxwell and Welty to British writers (Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Angus Wilson and Barbara Pym spring to mind), they have as yet enjoyed only fitful success here. The Folded Leaf dates from 1945, yet this is its first British edition. What can publishers have been doing? One can tell from the authorial assurance, the visual thereness of the opening pages alone, that this is a novel of major quality, the fruit of real engagement with other people and the course of their lives.

The Folded Leaf is, on its primary level, a study of the relationship between two boys, Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, as they progress through school to college. Lymie's mother is dead, and he and his salesman father live in cheap hotels. Lymie is clever, unathletic, ardent by temperament, with - beneath his mild, diffident exterior - a propensity to obsession. Spud is very different, at ease with his body, with no problems about his persona, unintellectual but by no means unintelligent, and talented at sports, first at swimming and then, during his college days, at boxing. The friendship between Lymie and Spud begins almost accidentally (though the subtlety of Maxwell's delineation makes one appreciate its psychological inevitability); Spud's casual invitation of Lymie to his home to take potluck with supper is for the latter an epiphany of immeasurable importance. He virtually falls in love with the normality of it all, of the badinage over the meal-table, the atmosphere of domesticity, the happy-seeming security of Spud's life. The Latham parents are rather surprised by their "jock" son's choice of pal but they are accepting enough, while Lymie's life is transfigured.

The two move on from school to the University of Illinois and share digs, partly for economic, partly for personal reasons. But college life accentuates the differences between Spud and Latham, and brings about situations where they are impossible to ignore. Spud as a good-looking young man is attractive to girls, and embarks on a love-affair with Sally, a professor's daughter and a friend of Lymie's. He is also socially sought after, and invited to join a smart fraternity - which he does, causing Lymie pain it is impossible openly to admit. Against their wishes mutual resentment develops, though, paradoxically, it is far stronger on Spud's part (for who likes having to feel guilty?) than on Lymie's.

To say that there is a strong homoerotic constituent in the boys' relationship is to state both the obvious and the ultimately irrelevant. Of course Lymie has physically registered responses to Spud; when, as they regularly and asexually do, they share a bed, Lymie likes his feet to touch his friend's. But we are concerned here with feelings that are too multi- layered ever to yield satisfactorily to labelling or even to overt analysis. They have to be presented in their often contradictory succession, and then viewed in the totality of a fiction to be understood. And maybe we never can finally understand, only empathise and acknowledge.

Nevertheless at the painful and deeply moving climax of the book - which a reviewer should not give away - there comes one supreme moment (it is here that Maxwell's kinship with Eudora Welty surely shows itself): "Neither he (Spud) nor Lymie spoke. They looked at each other with complete knowledge at last, with full awareness of what they meant to each other and of all that had ever passed between them."

I have spoken of a primary level to the novel; beneath this is the level at which The Folded Leaf is a study in American culture (the novel is set in that so American decade, the 1920s), with its cult of the buddy, its omnipresent but covert snobberies (epitomised in the fraternity system), and its glamori- sation of success, particularly in the physical domain of sport and sex. But beneath this is a tertiary and even more important level, on which Spud and Lymie's friendship stands for all relationships - threatened by truths which can never be spoken and sometimes not even thought, which have invisible but assertive limits, brought about not just by society and culture but by disposition and even physique.

Perhaps only the charity of the novelist can make these threats and limits endurable. Maxwell makes a Literature professor say of Shelley's "Alastor": "In solitude only can we attune ourselves to the meaning of nature and the deep heart of man."