I didn’t know what to expect from William Maxwell. I hadn’t heard of him until a novel of his was lauded on the wonderful ‘Backlisted’ podcast, which is all the recommendation I need. And as I’m having a short story month, this collection of all his short stories was the obvious choice.
I knew not to expect gripping page turners, and I wasn’t disappointed. Beautiful in a largely uneventful and melancholy way, yes. Insight, warmth and gentle humour, yes. Perfect bedtime reading, oh yes.
Most are set in the mid-century midwest, with a few forays to New York and Europe. The same families and locations recur, and the same themes: family stuff, small town stuff, regret, change, time passing. Maxwell’s characters are unrelentingly ordinary, and drawn with affection and sympathy (he does children brilliantly). Nearly all the stories involve people quietly being kind to each other – parents trying to do their best for their kids, men trying to be good husbands – it sounds icky but it’s done with great restraint, and the feeling of immense tenderness is what stayed with me.
Thankfully there’s always an undercurrent of sadness too – things not said, opportunities to do better missed – and some subtle humour and wry asides, which keeps it from cloying. And right now, I like reading about people wanting to be decent. Or at least realising, sorrowfully, they had failed to be.
So a bunch of uneventful stories about people trying to be good, against an unremarkable small-town backdrop. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But Maxwell does unremarkable so beautifully. Most of the stories are very domestic, and he loves doing interiors, and their light and quirks and uniqueness. There are no vast landscapes or teeming cityscapes, but there’s all the home furnishings you could ever want. He is a fanatical observer of furniture and china. I may not know what this character or his wife looked like, but I know everything about their tables, chairs, haberdashery, ornaments, tableware and pictures. There is one story – my favourite actually – called The Swedish Thistles – which refers to the motif on some curtains. Says it all.
Over a collection this size it all became a bit soporific eventually, I have to confess. I can never keep track of multi-generational family stories so I glossed over those (my bad). There are some awkward moments with black characters. And the stories are very male-centred, mainly focusing on sons and husbands and fathers; Maxwell is concerned with ‘What is a good man’ kind of stuff – and comes down on the side of being kind, responsible and thoughtful, so yay, but not of great personal interest to this reader.
A soothing comfort read for winter nights and stormy times though, which was very much appreciated. Four stars for the quality of writing, even if I did end up skimming a bit.