Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1915
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...
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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 not scold him for she “knows he is a gentle boy and tries hard.”
Dissent is beginning to take shape in the Wilson household, too, as Lloyd tries to disguise his loss of passion for his wife. He wonders if all new experiences are over for him, for he feels he has done everything there is to do already. Although each instinctively knows that the other has problems, the men respect the dignity of silence on personal matters.
The problems are joined quite unexpectedly, however, when Lloyd falls in love with Clarence’s wife, Fern. He feels suddenly pulled into a situation over which he has no control. His manner toward the Smiths becomes remote and unnatural as he tries to control his feelings. In his imagination he guiltily tells Clarence he should not trust him because “all my life I’ve been a mystery to myself.” From this point the tragedy unfolds slowly, inevitably—the characters are helpless to turn things back. What is done cannot be undone. Lloyd confesses his love to Fern, and she, a woman with “a look of sadness about her who perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable,” reciprocates. Lloyd mourns for the loss of his best friend as though Clarence had been lost in an accident.
The lovers, only disguised now as neighbors, catch Cletus staring at them, seeing them as strangers. The innocence of the boy is being steadily eroded by the actions of the adults. Blamelessness and simplicity ironically create a burden on the heart of the innocent when confronted with deceit and faithlessness. There is no precedent for understanding why the sins of parents must be passed on to their children.
Fern’s guilty conscience makes her suspect that Clarence knows. He, too, however, is an innocent, a man who gives the impression of being defenseless because he sees life as predictable, views promises as binding, and naïvely expects loyalty in return for loyalty. When she accuses him of deceitfully hiding his knowledge of the affair, “it was as if a hole opened suddenly at their feet and they fell into it.”
Now events move in slow motion. A year passes. Lloyd and Fern are determined to see each other; Clarence hopes the affair will wear itself out. Fern deliberately flaunts her disobedience and what was once whispered behind closed doors now is shouted from the top of the stairs. Cletus still rides his Christmas bike down the dusty road after school, and his dog still runs to greet him, but the farmhouse he enters is marked by his mother’s inattention and his father’s sad whistling. Marie Wilson moves into town, finally defeated by her husband’s alienation. Lloyd, aware that with a word she would stay, announces instead, “I have never before in my life been happy, and I will not give it up.”
Clarence, whose behavior has been increasingly characterized by passionate violence toward his wife, visits a minister who recommends that Fern seek counsel. Instead, she takes Cletus and his younger brother Wayne and moves in with her aunt in a small, dilapidated house across from the fairgrounds. Her lawyer warns Clarence that he is not to harass her or his boys. Cletus, alone and lonely, worried about his father, is lured by the sounds of a house being built and wanders off to investigate.
In the courtroom, the violence in her marriage is what Fern’s lawyer advises her to emphasize. Clarence has cross-filed on grounds of infidelity, but his only witness, the hired hand, is discredited as a drunk. It is never brought out that Clarence Smith is “pierced to the heart by his wife’s failure to love him.” He loses everything: his wife, his family, his farm.
Lloyd Wilson is found murdered before sunrise one morning slumped against a partition sitting on a milking stool. One of his ears has been cut off with a razor and the murderer has carried it away. Fifteen days later, Clarence Smith’s body, shot through the head, is found lying face down across the dredging bucket at the bottom of Deer Creek gravel pit, a still bloody razor in his coat pocket. Cletus is summoned by the sheriff to identify a shotgun found floating in the pit. The author notes:Between the time that Cletus and I climbed down from the scaffolding and went our separate ways and the moment when he was confronted with the broken gun in the sheriff’s office, he must have crossed over the line into maturity.
Maxwell presents adversity, not only that of others but also his own, using a style that is conversational, surely “midwestern” in its informality. This adds to the sense of simple people meeting fate on nonpretentious terms, yet clichés become almost extraneous in their frequency: “the short end of the stick,” “teacher will be sore at him,” “talking her leg off,’ the “widow had other strings to her bow,” “there is a line you can’t cross over,” “he climbed on top of her,” “let the cat out of the bag.” There is even a dog that thinks in clichés, and this is a problem, too. Maxwell has asked the reader to imagine a dog for Cletus, since farms and farm boys typically have such, but it is difficult to accept a dog in the same terms of innocence as humans. The dog, tied to a tree and left on the deserted farm, is “trying not to worry. Trying to be good—trying to be especially good.” Also, when Wilson’s little boys put their arms around her, she “felt some better.” She repeatedly runs away from her new master, Smith’s successor on the farm, and is finally “put out” with chloroform at the vet’s by a distraught Clarence. Fear and pity can be honestly elicited for Cletus, for Clarence, for Lloyd, but it borders on exaggeration to ask these same feelings for the dog, however domestic the tragedy.
Maxwell’s “roundabout, futile way of making amends” acknowledges Cletus’ struggles as greater than his own. Even for him the wounds were long in healing and fester occasionally. He only hopes that Cletus “with his arms outstretched, like an acrobat on a high wire, with no net to catch him if he falls,” survived the dreadful series of events that Maxwell transiently shared. Thus, he can reach out now to the boy he passed in the halls of a high school long removed and say, “I understand,” yet he will see the image of Cletus again tomorrow and only hope to believe that “what is done can be undone.”