Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 42: William Maxwell, The Lily-White Boys (#156)

William Maxwell, "The Lily-White Boys" (1986) from William Maxwell: Later Novels & Stories:

Oh, wow. I approached this story a little tentatively, since Maxwell was fiction editor for the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975. Which may make it seem like Maxwell has an unfair advantage getting his work published, which, OK, sure: there's unfortunately no fair game in literary merit, and if Maxwell had a leg up from knowing people from his position, that's the edge he had.

And after reading his "The Lily-White Boys," I'm rather glad that he had that edge. Here's a story in six pages from an omniscient POV that swings through four stages (meaning both "periods" and "settings" because that's how I roll):

  1. The Follansbee Christmas party, which is the type of party where they light candles on their tree and to hell with the city fire code, the kind of party where "with her eyebrows [the hostess] signaled to the maid that the plate of watercress sandwiches needed reļ¬lling";
  2. the Colemans walk home to discover they've been burgled, which is the majority of this story and includes: mystery over the break-in, resignation over the stolen jewels, the police not promising anything but being understanding, and Mrs. Coleman trying on all her old dresses that have been brought out by the criminals;
  3. a paragraph on the criminals, telling us almost exactly nothing about them other than where they were--like when they come to a toll, "the sandy-haired recidivist, slouched down in the right-hand front seat, opened his eyes" and we never hear anything more, like why or what he saw or...;
  4. the dialogue of the furniture that witnessed the robbery, discussing how they feel about this intrusion and how they may recover from it, and how the Colemans will recover, probably turning this story into a dinner party anecdote for the Follansbees.
In six pages! The weirdness of that final movement really seals the deal for me--this is something new and strange, a reminder of the purely material basis for much of the story, including the Christmas tree with its candles and with Mark Follansbee holding a bucket of water. In other words, under the surface of the calm and material-rich lifestyle, there's some danger and uncertainty--and maybe just plain meanness. When the Colemans come home, they wonder at the MO of the robbers, which seems to be tinged with meanness above-and-beyond the desire to steal: why step on the paintings, why break the lamps, etc.?

On top of that final, interesting move (and whether it's totally successful, we can all agree that the move is interesting if not totally original--see Their Eyes Were Watching God, where some vultures start to hold a colloquy in the middle of a realist book), there's the depth of emotion hinted at here: the brittle happiness of the Follansbee party, the social niceties of leave-taking (not so socially nice for the doorman), the husband and wife facing disaster together, and his seeing her again putting on all the old dresses. Tiny, identifiable emotional moments like that help to carry a story in six pages and help Maxwell avoid the error of stretching it out.

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