Reconstructing the past, in elegant meditations

March 08, 1992|By Anne Whitehouse

BILLIE DYER AND OTHER STORIES.

William Maxwell.

Knopf.

112 pages. $18. William Maxwell, author of novels, short stories and essays, and fiction editor of The New Yorker for 40 years, has created memorable and unflinching portraits of American families in spare, elegant prose. This new collection of short stories finds the author, now in his 80s, in familiar territory, exploring the world of his childhood in Lincoln, Ill., in the first decades of this century. These stories may collectively be described as an imaginative memoir. Where facts and testimony are available, Mr. Maxwell offers them, while he unhesitatingly fills in the gaps with (P plausible suppositions.

These stories include portraits of figures who have continued to haunt him, as well as investigations into painful and perplexing events. "Love" is a brief cameo of his beautiful fifth-grade teacher, who died of tuberculosis when she was 23. Visiting her in her sickroom, the young Maxwell "was struck dumb by the fact that she didn't seem glad to see us. She didn't belong to us anymore. She belonged to her illness."

The title story is his reconstruction of the life of one of Lincoln's most distinguished citizens, its first black doctor. William Dyer, the grandson of a freed slave, was a generation older than Mr. Maxwell. Although he never met Dyer, he was acquainted with his family and friends, and was fascinated by what he knew of the hard-working doctor.

In drawing Dyer's portrait, he was immeasurably aided by the fortuitous discovery, in a Texas auction in 1975, of Dyer's World War I diary, describing his experiences as a medical officer in the Army's 92nd Division, comprised of black troops. In paraphrases and quotes from the diary as well as in testimonies from those who knew him, Dyer emerges as a serious and eloquent man of great dignity. The story is also about the racism that existed in the Lincoln of Mr. Maxwell's childhood and today, as well as in the segregated army in which Dyer served.

"The Front and Back Parts of the House" is the most complex story in the collection. On the one hand, it gives a further account of relations between Lincoln's blacks and whites in the descriptions of the Maxwell family's attitudes toward Hattie Dyer, Billie's sister, who worked as their housekeeper for five years, and of Maxwell's Aunt Annette's relationship with her housekeeper, Lula.

It also tells the painful story of the death of Maxwell's mother in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, after giving birth to her ,, third child, and of his father's lonely widowhood and subsequently happy remarriage. On another level, Mr. Maxwell has undertaken this investigation into the past in order to solve a distressing mystery. As an adult in his 30s visiting his aunt in Lincoln, Mr. Maxwell, upon discovering Hattie Dyer in the kitchen, embraced her warmly. Expecting a joyous reunion, he was met with rigid silence and an overwhelming impression of anger.

Perplexed, Mr. Maxwell sought an answer for Hattie's rejection in his family's attitudes. Only much later did he realize the real reason. It is the writer's insoluble dilemma and -- Mr. Maxwell believes -- his unforgivable crime that, working from his experience and his imagination, he will create characters that others will recognize or believe to be drawn from life. In writing a novel about a family resembling his own, he invented a black housekeeper who had an abusive, alcoholic husband. Although he was not thinking of Hattie and knew almost nothing about her husband, Mr. Maxwell nevertheless made an indelible impression his local readers, earning Hattie's enmity.

The focus of "With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge" is also a guilty revelation, Mr. Maxwell's boyhood discovery that he was capable of cruelty. As a Boy Scout initiating Cub Scouts, he forced the blindfolded little boys to run smack into a bridge railing: "It was the moment I learned that I was not to be trusted."

"The Holy Terror" is an affecting story about his older brother, Hap, a wild little boy who, at the age of 6, broke his leg in an accident. The leg was eventually amputated well above the knee. Mr. Maxwell observes, "Because I saw what happens to little boys who are incorrigible, I became a more tractable, even-tempered, milder person than it was my true nature to be."

Mr. Maxwell writes with restraint and distinction about moral dilemmas. His prose is lucid and sure. He judges without preaching. These stories are a moving, unsentimental meditation upon his past.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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