Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part Two)

They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell

So far as I can see, there is no legitimate sleight of hand involved in practicing the arts of painting, sculpture, and music. They appear to have had their origins in religion, and they are fundamentally serious. In writing — all writing, but especially in narrative writing — you are continually being taken in. The reader, skeptical, experienced, with many demands on his time, and many ways of enjoying his leisure, is asked to believe in people he knows don’t exist, to be present at scenes that never occurred, to be amused or moved or instructed just as he would be in real life, only the life exists in somebody else’s imagination. If, as Mr. T. S. Eliot says, humankind cannot bear very much reality, then that would account for their turning to the charlatans operating along the riverbank — to the fortune-teller, the phrenologist, the man selling spirit money, the storyteller. Or there may be a different explanation; it may be that what humankind cannot bear directly it can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.

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Extended quotes are not really my style but the one above, from a 1955 William Maxwell lecture, The Writer as Illusionist, very accurately captures what he achieves in They Came Like Swallows, his outstanding second novel. Maxwell’s own mother died in the post-Great War influenza epidemic when he was 10 — this short novel is his effort to tell us a story that we as readers can bear indirectly, from a safe distance. In a most impressive way, it succeeds; it is a gem of a book.

They Came Like Swallows is told in three “books”, which are actually more of chapter length (the entire work comes in at 121 pages). The first centres on Bunny, the Maxwell character (age 8 in the book), who doesn’t quite get along with his brother or his father, but is truly attached to his mother. A contemplative child, he finds the pressures of “getting along” with family life just too much:

Ever since that time he had been trying to make a place for his father within his own arranged existence — and always unsuccessfully. His father was not the kind of man who could be fit into anybody’s arrangement except his own. He was too big, for one thing. His voice was too loud. He was too broad in the shoulder, and he smelled of cigars.

While Bunny is trying to figure out how to deal with this (wanting all the while to hide in his mother’s embrace), there is another looming challenge — his mother has been hemming diapers and the family will soon have a new member. This upsets Bunny’s equilibrium even more, but that strain moves into the background when he becomes the first member of the Morison family to fall victim to the flu. Conflict avoidance — even serious conversation avoidance — is a family trait; becoming part of the global epidemic produces a stress for which all family members are simply not prepared.

Book two of the novel is told from the viewpoint of his brother Robert, 13, who has his own challenges, having lost part of a leg in a wagon accident. Robert is a hail-fellow-well-met type and deals just fine with that problem. His own disruption comes when he inadvertently lets his mother into Bunny’s room after strict instructions from the doctor that the expectant mother is to be allowed nowhere near her sick son.

Having set the stage of the reality that none of us want to face directly, Maxwell uses the last, most poignant part of the book to explore two very relevant themes. The first is the guilt of “what if?” What if Robert had not let his mother into Bunny’s bedroom? What if Mr. Morison had boarded his wife and himself onto the interurban with the near-empty parlor car instead of pressing on into a crowded coach, with all the risks of infection? What if, what if, what if.

Book three explores answers to those questions but also opens a new one — how do we grieve? While Bunny and Robert certainly have to face that, the father becomes the focus of this part of the book. He has been comfortable in his boring life but, like most people who must face such a sudden tragedy, he is utterly unprepared for what the world ahead will look like.

This is a very brief review, but only because this is such a powerful book. There are some things that we hope we do not have to bear directly but “can bear indirectly, from a safe distance.” That is exactly what William Maxwell has achieved in They Came Like Swallows.

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10 Responses to “Two early novels by William Maxwell (Part Two)”

  1. William Rycroft Says:

    Such a powerful and deeply sad book. I really look forward to reading your thoughts on Maxwell’s other novels in the future. If you don’t mind my saying Kevin, there is a similar assurance and wisdom to your reviewing as can be found in Maxwell’s writing.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Will — it means a lot to me.

  3. Kerry Says:

    I enjoyed the review and the “less is more” tack you took. With these two Maxwell reviews, you have him vaulting up my TBR list. You and John Self have become my “go-to” bloggers for interesting discussions of books. Now if only I had time to keep up with the two of you…

    Thanks for a great blog. I always look forward to your new reviews and being guided toward authors I might otherwise neglect.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Kerry — your comments are certainly welcomed. Since I bought both of the Library of America volumes of Maxwell, my plan is to space the rest of my reading of him out — say a section of short stories or a novel every six months. That way I know I have five years of reading ahead of me. In addition to a TBR pile (which often contains books that I know I might not like that much) I have a “trustworthy” pile, for books that I am certain I will like when I have just finished a few that weren’t very good. Most of the books in that pile are for re-reading — Maxwell will be one of the few authors on it whom I have not yet read.

  5. Kerry Says:

    I like your “trustworthy” pile concept. I have recently been doing quite a bit of re-reading and hitting what I suppose is my own “trustworthy” pile. But less about me. Would you recommend I start with Bright Center of Heaven or They Came Like Swallows? I am leaning towards his more “well regarded” They Came Like Swallows, but would value your considered input. This will probably be read in chronological proximity to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (thank you for that, too). Thanks for any thoughts.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Given the program you have there, Kerry, I’d start with They Came Like Swallows (in some ways the novella is three linked stories), move on to Anderson, then go back in Maxwell to Bright Center — his version of Anderson’s “grotesques” iin this book s comparable, although Maxwell is gentler. And if you are looking to extend that agenda, look at one of Alice Munro’s better known collections (Lives of Girls and Women would be excellent). She was influenced by both, writes as well (perhaps better) and adds a female dimension that is very worthwhile. The other direction to consider heading is further West — check out the review of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose that I did earlier. Personally, I’d stay with the short stories at this point.

    As for my own path from Maxwell (just to show your comment inspires thought), my copy of Olive Kitteridge, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, finallly arrived and I am going to get to it soon. Since it has been compared to Winesburg, I’m interested in seeing how Strout’s Maine compares to Anderson’s Ohio and Maxwell’s Illinois. Richard Russo, a contemporary American author I quite like (he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls), has a new book out in August — That Old Cape Magic — set in Cape Cod and Maine. My plan is to use the Strout to set me up for Russo. That’s my short-term American regional project.

  7. Kerry Says:

    The reading plan sounds pretty good. I will plan to polish off a short Maxwell rather than engaging Anderson next.

    My interest in both Maxwell and Anderson was sparked by your reviews. Anderson was one of those fellows to whom I either did not know or, once I did, did not pay much attention, but, given the interest your review generated for me, I started noticing Anderson references/mentions everywhere. Or maybe you are just that powerful…

    Just for fun, my path to Maxwell will have been: Gina Berriault “The Son”, Marquez “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, Willa Cather “Song of the Lark”, Jon Dos Passos “The Big Money”. I am looking forward to comparing Dos Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy is, in some sense, like interlinked short stories (novels?), to Anderson and Maxwell. I am disappointed to be nearing the end of the last book in Dos Passos’ trilogy. I cannot recommend him too highly. Achebe, Gunter Grass, Richard Price, and Joyce (Ulysses) follow, in that order, Maxwell and Anderson in the queue.

    Of course, plans as tentative as a TBR list are always subject to change.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the reading history — and what an ambitious plan you have. Good luck.

    And thanks also for the recommendation on the Dos Passos trilogy. It is one of those books that has sat on the shelf, waiting to be attempted. I’m not sure when I will get to it, but I will.

  9. Kerry Says:

    Whenever I hear someone is reading (or planning to read) Dos Passos, I feel a little happier. If you would review them, very cool.

  10. Kerry Says:

    My own review of They Came Like Swallows is up. Thanks again for the recommendation. It was a good one. I will review Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio soon.

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