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.
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.