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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 Maxwell family kitchen, and with Alfred Dyer, his father, who tended their coal stove. Because he wasn’t a servant, Billie Dyer himself was more rumor than reality, and not only for Maxwell. When he tries to find out about Dyer’s life he comes up short. In spite of his accomplishments Billie Dyer is essentially an invisible man.

What little information Maxwell has about Billie Dyer, who was a generation older than he, comes mainly second and third hand, through people who did know the doctor, or people who knew people who did, as well as from a few of his letters, and a diary written when he was serving in France in a segregated unit during World War I. The diary, a small copybook illustrated with photographs and postcards, was picked up off a table at a Texas flea market in 1975 by a real estate developer who later contacted the Lincoln Public Library to learn more about its author. Not much was known, despite the fact that Dr. Dyer had been honored as one of the town’s ten most distinguished men at its centennial in 1953. At the time he was sixty-seven years old and living in Kansas City, working as the chief surgeon for the Santa Fe Railroad.

Not knowing a lot about the Dyers’ circumstances, Maxwell intuits them—that is, makes them up. “For things that are not known—at least not anymore, and that there is now no way of finding out about, one has to fall back on imagination,” he writes. From Billie Dyer:

It was raining hard when school let out. Some children had raincoats and rubbers they put on. He ran all the way home, to keep from getting wet. He threw open the front door and fought his way through drying laundry to get to the kitchen, where his mother was, and said “Mama, I’m starving,” and she gave him a piece of bread and butter to tide him over.

While inventing conversations, intentions, and moods is the prerogative of the memoirist, Maxwell appears to be uncomfortable with it. He does not weave what he speculates to have happened into what he knows for certain to have happened and consider the result to be of a piece. Rather, as in “Billie Dyer,” he confesses that the fabric is rent and flaunts the seams. It is one of the distinguishing marks of both Maxwell’s fiction and non-fiction—and the reason why the two are often confused—that in the midst of narrating a story one often finds him explaining his narrative method. For instance, in the novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, which won the American Book Award in 1980, a story about the murder of a poor white tenant farmer by a friend whose wife the farmer had fallen in love with, Maxwell inserts a small disclaimer. About the murderer’s son, who had been the narrator’s friend, he writes: “Except through the intervention of chance, the one possibility of my making some connection with him seems to lie not in the present but in the past—in my trying to reconstruct the testimony that he was never called upon to give.” In Ancestors, an elegant recreation of the Maxwell family tree, he also discusses his method, again to expose its deficiencies. “Here, for a few seconds, the whole house of cards I have so patiently been constructing threatens to collapse. All it takes is one slippery card. Have I misremembered?… Perhaps it doesn’t much matter, except that it casts doubt on other things that I thought I had right.”

Still, he has not always done this, as he painstakingly observes in “The Front and the Back Parts of the House,” a story about Billie Dyer’s sister Hattie. In the story, Maxwell tells of returning to Lincoln as an adult, where he is told by his aunt that Hattie Dyer, the Maxwells’ old housekeeper, is in her kitchen. Maxwell, by now a successful writer from New York City, rushes in and hugs her.

There was no response. Any more than if I had hugged a wooden post. She did not even look at me. As I backed away from her in embarrassment at my mistake, she did not do or say anything that would make it easier for me to get from the kitchen to the front part of the house where I belonged.

But the episode isn’t about class any more than it is about race. It is about representation and reality. Years before, Maxwell had published the novel Time Will Darken It, set in Draperville, a town like Lincoln. It is an emotionally complicated story about an upright, priggish lawyer, Austin King, his unhappy wife, Martha, and the effect on them and their marriage of the arrival of Austin’s young cousin from the south who falls in love with Austin. The story is beautifully told, and because of Maxwell’s consummate ability to reveal the failings of the moral life—rendering Austin’s pursuit of propriety as tragically flawed—it has a moving authenticity. But because the story isn’t wholly made up, and Maxwell uses some of his own background as detail, some readers, especially those familiar with those details, might be inclined to assume that, rather than being true to life, the novel is, simply, true. Or they may know better but assume that others reading the book do not. This, Maxwell concludes at long last, perhaps explains why Hattie Dyer behaved the way she did in the kitchen. She was, very loosely, the model for Rachel, the maid in Time Will Darken It, but who, in Lincoln, would know how loosely? Who would know, for instance, that her husband was nothing like the drunken, lecherous vagrant Maxwell had wedded to Rachel?

If Hattie did indeed read my book then what could she think but that I had portrayed her as a loose woman and her husband as a monster of evil? And people in Lincoln, colored people and white, would wonder if I knew things about [her husband] that they didn’t, and if he was not the person they took him for. I had exposed their married life and blackened his character in order to make a fortune from my writing. I was a thousand miles away, where she couldn’t confront me with what I had done. And if she accused me to other people it would only call attention to the book and make more people read it than had already. If all this is true (and my bones tell me that it is true) then why, when I walked into my aunt’s kitchen, should she be pleased to see me? I do not feel that it is a light matter.

My bones tell me it is true,” Maxwell writes. In other words, he does not know. It is plausible. It is as good a guess as any. Which is how he incurred Hattie’s coldness in the first place. This time, though, he confesses, and tells what he is doing, and where he might have gone wrong.

The continuities between Billie Dyer and Maxwell’s earlier memoirs, novels, and short stories go beyond this kind of moral compulsion to tell the truth and admit one’s failings. They are connected, more simply, by the fact that Maxwell has told all or parts of the stories he tells in Billie Dyer earlier, in They Came Like Swallows and Ancestors and So Long, See You Tomorrow and Time Will Darken It and Over By The River and Other Stories. This is not to suggest that Billie Dyer is merely a reprise. It is Maxwell’s particular gift to use the passage of time the way an artist uses light: from an ever-lengthening distance a person or a place or an emotion may not only look different from the way it did before, it may be different. Telling, again and again, about the brother who lost a leg, or the mother who died of influenza when Maxwell was ten, is not to dilute these events any more than it is an attempt to memorialize them. Rather, it is to get a feel for their dimensions, and to understand that how they looked at the time may not be how they look now, and to recognize that how they look now may be actually how they were. This is the achievement of Billie Dyer. It is as if, toward the end of his writing life, Maxwell is seeing these events and people in their true perspective. Or maybe it’s more confessional than that. Maybe he is showing them for the first time.

This is most obvious in two poignant and powerful vignettes, “Love” and “The Holy Terror.” “Love” is a delicate sketch about visiting Maxwell’s beloved fifth-grade teacher shortly before her death. Remembering her classroom all these years later, he recalls a scene that, perhaps ever since, has illustrated an ideal of goodness and kindness.

As she called the roll, her voice was as gentle as the expression in her beautiful dark brown eyes. She reminded me of pansies. When she called on Alvin Ahrens to recite and he said, “I know but I can’t say,” the class snickered but she said, “Try,”…

That line, “I know but I can’t say,” appears in a number of other Maxwell novels, where children are forever knowing but not being able to say, but it has never been told so rawly. Why he reiterates it through his work, why it made such an impression on him, becomes obvious only in the context of this very short story.

Similarly, in “The Holy Terror,” Maxwell recalls an episode that first appeared in a novel published fifty-five years ago, They Came Like Swallows. A young boy, intrigued by his older brother’s set of lead toy soldiers which are off-limits to him, goes to play with them one day when his brother is out and instead knocks them off the shelf, breaking them all, just as his brother walks in the door. The soldiers were a present to the older boy when his leg was amputated. The younger boy is jealous. What is striking about the retelling here, as with “Love,” is that this episode has a context—it is no longer simply a scene—and the context is what Maxwell has written about obliquely in The Folded Leaf and more directly elsewhere: what it was like, and what have been the consequences, of growing up with a brother who, though disabled, is manlier than he.

There was a period in my life when I lay down on a psychoanalyst’s couch four times a week and relived the past…. The Germanic voice coming from a few feet beyond the crown of my head suggested that my brother’s accident had been a great misfortune not only for him but for me also; because I saw what happens to little boys who are incorrigible, I became a more tractable, more even-tempered, milder person than it was my true nature to be…. In support of the psychoanalytic conjecture, a submerged memory rose to the surface of my mind. At [the] Scout camp where Hap won the singles tennis championship I was awarded a baseball glove for Good Conduct.

Goodness is not always what it seems.

Before Billie Dyer, one gets the sense that by writing of his childhood, Maxwell was in the process of working it out. With Billie Dyer there is the sense that he has. One cannot be sure, but Maxwell appears to be telling these stories for the last time. “The past,” he says in the book, “is always being plowed under.”

But not if he can help it. Lincoln, which he left when he was fourteen, and his childhood, which left him when he was ten and his mother died, remain so close to him that they are immediately available to us, without sentiment, without nostalgia or piety. This is history that instructs, and what it teaches best may be how to keep the past from being plowed under.

Years from now we should still be reading Billie Dyer to learn how to keep the clothesline strung. As for remembering to raise it in the first place, we might refer back to The Folded Leaf:

The great, the universal, problem is how to be always on a journey and yet see what you would see if it were only possible for you to stay home: a black cat in a garden, moving through iris blades behind a lilac bush. How to keep sufficiently detached and quiet inside so that when the cat in one spring reaches the top of the garden wall…you will see and remember it, and not be absorbed at the moment in the dryness of your hands.

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