Maxwell's stories are among the best

January 09, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

William Maxwell notes in the preface to this collection that when he was 25, he mistakenly thought that going to sea was the proper training for an aspiring fiction writer. "I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal."

That material, he discovered, was "My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters . . . that I was presented with when I came into this world." And since that time in 1933 when he sought his dubious seafaring experience, he has written six novels and some of the best contemporary short stories by an American.

This collection of 23 stories includes selections as early as 1939 ("Young Francis Whitehead") and as late as 1992 ("What He Was Like"). Many of them were written for the New Yorker; a 1940 collection called "Short Stories from the New Yorker," which I bought some years ago in a used-book store, includes his story "Homecoming," sandwiched in between works by Woolcott Gibbs and Thomas Wolfe.

His association with the magazine was also as an editor, where he worked for 40 years, editing the fiction of such writers as James Thurber, Vladimir Nabokov and John Cheever. Indeed, Mr. Maxwell, now 84 and retired, has been a significant literary force in this country.

"All the Days and Nights" indicates an author of immense gifts, one who understands what a short story is and what it takes to create a good one.

His stories are so fully realized that they recall the observation once made by Truman Capote. He maintained that "The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right."

"Billie Dyer," taken from Mr. Maxwell's 1992 collection of stories, is such a story. It's the portrait of an old black man from the author's hometown of Lincoln, Ill., who endured the vagaries of racism in the North. This was not the oppression of Mississippi at the turn of the century; it was more subtle, yet in its own way as devastating.

The white townspeople agreed Billie was a bright lad, but "at the same time they appeared to feel that in becoming a doctor he had imitated the ways of white people . . . and done something that was not really necessary or called for, since there were, after all, plenty of white doctors. Apart from the doctors, the only things I can think of that the white people of Lincoln were at that time willing to share with the colored people were the drinking water and cemetery."

This is a typical passage of Mr. Maxwell's: The language is simple and clear, with a minimum of adjectives and adverbs. The sentences have a rhythm that invites reading aloud. While the framework is uncluttered, the stories themselves are intricately layered. The author returns to a character, a theme, again and again, so that in the end we do feel as Capote suggested we should: that the story is "absolute and final."

Among the other stories that stand out in this collection is "The Gardens of Mont-Saint-Michel," in which an American couple visiting France in the late 1960s are distraught to see that the countryside of Brittany has changed enormously since they stopped there after World War II. Once they were the only tourists in town, feasting on seven-course meals, drinking fine wine and generally feeling that they had found a land that time forgot. "It was the earthly paradise," Mr. Maxwell writes, "and they had it all to themselves."

Now Brittany, and all of France, is overrun with tourists, and Reynolds, the protagonist, aches for the simpler days of before:

"It was one loss after another, something hideous replacing TC something beautiful, the decay of manners, the lapse of pleasant customs, as by a blind increase in numbers the human race went about making the earth more and more unfit to live on." The story appears to be headed toward a bleak ending, yet Mr. Maxwell mixes it up with some well-placed irony and gentle humor.

In his effusive blurb for "All the Days and Nights," Reynolds Price likens Mr. Maxwell's short stories to those of Chekhov, Welty and Tolstoy. Giving such an assessment of anyone makes me uncomfortable. But it's enough to say that Mr. Maxwell is a writer of grace and wisdom. His stories have not disappointed me yet.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell"

Author: William Maxwell

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 393 pages, $25

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