Billie Dyer and Other Stories
William Maxwell has had one of the longest and quietest distinguished literary careers of our time. Now 83, he published his first novel in 1934; his award-winning So Long, See You Tomorrow came out in 1980. His understated but solid reputation perfectly suits his work, which, if it bowls you over, does so modestly and unobtrusively. Like the flat Midwestern farmland surrounding Lincoln, Ill., Maxwell’s boyhood home and favorite setting, his fiction presents a landscape in which nuances are the decisive, dramatic features — in which beauty is a subtle variation of banality. His spare precision brings to mind those 17th-century Dutch paintings in which meticulous plainness assumes its own moral force, transforming the commonplace into the moving universal.
The ”stories” in this new volume, Billie Dyer and Other Stories, are portraits from memory, rendered without any conspicuous fictional gestures. The narrator is Maxwell in reflective old age; the time is the first two decades of the century; the place is Lincoln, a town of 12,000 people, and the spacious, tree-shaded Victorian house in which he spent his boyhood. The portraits are of family, family friends, a teacher, a black servant, a black surgeon — each brought into stark relief with the help of some mysterious metamorphosis, a puzzle teased into revelation. Miss Brown, a beautiful, adored young schoolteacher, disappears, and Maxwell and a schoolmate boldly and nervously bicycle out to her farmhouse, where they find her unreachable, emaciated and transformed by tuberculosis: ”She didn’t belong to us anymore. She belonged to her illness.” An uncle, seen in a Victorian photograph as a confident young man sitting with a pretty girl on the curve of a cardboard crescent moon, is gradually altered into a man who forges checks. A black maid to whom Maxwell had been close as a boy refuses his embrace when he is visiting many years later — a puzzle that gives rise to some reflections about how fictional fidelities translate into real betrayals. (The woman has mistaken the loose-living maid depicted in one of his novels for a malicious portrait of herself.)
The title story is about the son of the devoutly religious black man who drove the Maxwell family carriage. Billie Dyer, a close friend of Maxwell’s brother’s, becomes William Holmes Dyer, an eminent Kansas City surgeon, Republican and overworked. Maxwell, urged into a retracing of Dyer’s life by the discovery of a stoical World War I diary that he had kept, turns the account into a meditation on the treacherous ambiguities of race in that time and place and on the slipping of American culture into a perpetual, forgetful present.
Maxwell is more forgiving of others than of himself in these retrievals. A bitter friend of his father’s is understood in light of his wife’s death; his own father’s remarriage after his mother’s death during the 1918 flu epidemic is finally forgiven with an understanding that is a gift of old age; but he’s rueful about his own careless sins and cautious virtues. The moral clarity of this tender, unsentimental, infinitely scrupulous book confirms and belies its recurrent theme: ”When it comes to self-deception we are all vaudeville magicians.” A