A memoir, a reckoning of an old regret, William Maxwell’s first novel in eighteen years is both. This work originally appeared in The New Yorker and, in the style of that journal’s fiction, evokes sharp recognition of the small domestic tragedies to which we are all heir.
Two stories are told here: one, an account of Maxwell as a boy of ten reacting to the death of his mother; the other, a fictionalized attempt to reach out to a boyhood acquaintance and make amends for a slight. The two threads become interwoven in the fictionalized account of a murder-suicide.
The author’s perceptions color his characters’ in an open way; thus, the reader shares his need to “rearrange things to make them acceptable.” Friendship is held almost sacred, aloneness and loneliness are confronted, and limitations not only of others but of the self as well are recognized. In reaching out to the real/imaginary Cletus Smith, he hopes to resolve some of these conflicts.
All that is concretely known about Cletus and the tragedy of his family comes from photostatic copies of eight issues of the 1922 Lincoln, Illinois, Courier-Herald, court records of a divorce and a murder, and a coroner’s inquest. These are pieced together with a mixture of truth and fiction to create a story of a sensitive farm boy forced by the circumstances of his singularity and youth to accept an untenable burden of deceit and murder.
This nightmare imitates the tensions generated by the sudden and unexpected death of Maxwell’s mother. He, too, must accept and live with profound loss. The boy walks the floor with his disconsolate and oblivious father, an arm around the grieving man’s waist, hoping to share some solace, find some reconcilement. An older brother with whom he shares a bedroom is detached from him also. Each grieves alone, and the boy is left to bear the unbearable in solitude:Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed... . The idea that kept recurring to me ... was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.
This is a link to meeting Cletus on the scaffolding of a half-finished house. The rudimentary doorways and open walls create an easy access which is almost magical. There is a sympathy in the joining of two troubled boys—but only in retrospect. Cletus is almost like an imaginary playmate and, therefore, an extension of the narrator. The real and the fiction become a fretwork on which to hang absolution.
A murder-suicide committed by Cletus’ father removes the playmates from each other permanently with only a chance meeting in Chicago a year and a half later: “The meeting in the corridor ... I keep reliving in my mind, as if I were going through a series of reincarnations that end up each time in the same failure.” The boys recognize each other, but not a word is spoken by either. Maxwell the adolescent and adult forever after feels guilty that he did not offer a word or gesture of recognition, consolation. The boy who has been acutely sensitive to slights toward himself has slighted another. This moment exists as the regret which must be reconciled through fiction. The author becomes storyteller giving speech to the inarticulate, crossing the void at last.
Lincoln, Illinois, in the early 1920’s is a farming community. In town live the landowners and out of town their tenants, the farmers. These hardworking, austere, plain-speaking men and women shy away from the small-town familiarity and rely on one another instead. The sound of a gasoline engine sputtering and dying somewhere off in the fields can be heard, and farmers removed from one another by many acres listen for it to start again.
The farmhouse of Lloyd Wilson lies an eighth of a mile closer to town than that of Clarence Smith, and, if need be, one will leave his own work to help the other: “Wrenches and pliers pass back and forth between them with as much familiarity as if they owned their four hands in common.” Newspaper photographs of the two men printed after the tragedy show they even look alike.
Outwardly there are no signs of conflict in these two families. The boy, Cletus, hears things, however—his mother crying at night through the thin walls, angry voices rising through the ventilator from the room below his bedroom. This companionless boy, a good boy, tries to shut the discord out by dreaming of a motorcycle he saw in the Sears, Roebuck catalog and by helping his father with the chores. When he cannot concentrate on his homework, the teacher does...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)