Do the Right Thing

Billie Dyer and Other Stories

by William Maxwell
Knopf, 117 pp., $18.00

Your letter was exactly the kind I always want when my friends go back to their native towns,” Louise Bogan wrote to her friend William Maxwell, the young New Yorker editor and writer in 1941, when he was a few years past thirty and at work on The Folded Leaf, his second and arguably finest novel, an elegiac, sometimes brutal portrait of adolescence. “I want to see and hear the town, but I seldom do. Yes, it is the birds and children, along those streets with their lawns and trees, and I’m glad you remembered the clothesline.”

Maxwell, now eighty-four, has been remembering the clothesline for more than half a century. And he has been remembering his native town, Lincoln, Illinois, and his childhood there, and its children and birds—especially its children. His latest book, Billie Dyer and Other Stories, comes from Lincoln, and from an imagination formed there. Like his other twelve books, it stands apart from prevailing literary fashions. Like them it lacks an insistent ego, it has little to do with sex, it is preoccupied with memory and the fate and mysteries of character, and with the moral life.

Quietly, while speaking of other things, Maxwell is asking questions about human behavior that seem as old-fashioned as the wide front porch and the parlor with its heavy velvet curtains of the house of his childhood. What is goodness? Who is good? The answers are given quietly, too. Certainly goodness is embodied in his fifth-grade teacher, Miss Vera Brown, who, in a story called “Love,” is dying of tuberculosis. Maybe—if only he can admit it—his father, who works hard for a fire insurance company and takes care of his family, is also a good man, as he starts to see in a piece, “My Father’s Friends,” about going home to Lincoln when his father dies. But not himself, not ever himself, not as a five-year-old, he reports in “The Holy Terror,” a galvanic account of his older brother who lost a leg in a childhood accident, and not as a twelve-year-old, when he “learned not to trust himself” after willfully hurting some younger, more vulnerable boys, as he writes in “With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge,” and not as an adult, having taken up the habit of fiction, he suggests in “The Front and the Back Parts of the House.”

The title story, “Billie Dyer,” is different from these. It is about Billie Dyer, “a colored boy who finished high school and went off to St. Louis to study medicine, much to the amusement of the white families who brought their washing to his mother once a week in big wicker baskets.” William Maxwell’s family was one of these. The subtext is not goodness exactly, but guilt—Maxwell’s own displaced and somewhat amorphous racial guilt.

The story is observed from a distance. Maxwell never knew Billy Dyer, though he was familiar with his sister Hattie, who worked in the …

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