The Lonely Voice #20: William Maxwell in the December Rain


This morning I threw Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending out the window of my car.

I was reading at a red light. This occurred at approximately 10 A.M. at the corner of Mission Street and Como Avenue in Daly City, California. I was on my way to the Red Wing Store in the Westgate Shopping Center. Red Wing makes good boots. Anyway, I was at a red light. I found myself sympathizing with Adrian, a character in the book, who, apparently, kills himself to get away from people like the narrator. I get it, I get it, Tony is supposed to be annoying. But there is literary annoying and there is literally annoying. My judgment, for what it is worth, may well be completely wrong and unfair. People I love and respect adored this book, including my mother. In fact, it was my mother’s book club copy that I lobbed into the wet street.

I mean no disrespect, to my mother or to Barnes. And I’ve truly enjoyed his work in the past. I remember fondly the book about the parrot, as well as a number of his stories. There is no accounting for taste on a given day, or suicidal thoughts.

The lines that sent me over went something like this: “I wrote another message to Veronica and wrote in the subject line, Question. Then I wrote, “Do you think I was in love with you back then?”

Leaving aside the fact that I read to escape from email, there was something too cooked up about the narration in Sense of an Ending, something too obvious about the withholding nature of Tony’s guilt, a treading of water, before the revelation of something astonishing.

In the rear view, I watched a woman stop in the middle of the intersection. She was carrying a shopping bag in one hand and an umbrella in the other. The woman, deftly and, I thought, with a great deal of style, swung the umbrella up and lodged the shaft under her armpit so that canopy bloomed out behind her. Then she swooped down with her free hand and grabbed the book. I watched her shove it in one of the big pockets of her raincoat. I hope she enjoys it. When the mystery of Adrian’s suicide is explained, may she be deeply moved. (Personally, I hope it has something to do with Veronica’s mother. A good character, I liked the way she cracked the eggs early in the book.)

Is it just me or is the moment of finishing (rare) or abandoning (frequent) a book an especially exciting moment for you as well? I find it a thrill because I’m freed up once again to choose another story out of the infinite dark that constitutes all the unread books in the universe. All the possibilities. Maybe this time I will find the one book that will save me from myself. Sometimes, as a kind of temporary solace, and also to stave off the commitment issues I have with new books, I go for something I’ve already read and loved before I resume the search for the one book that will save me from myself. Today, despairing and feeling guilty about throwing my mother’s nice hardcover into the street, I reached for an old friend: William Maxwell. I say friend. I never knew him. And yet still, he speaks to me, as I know he does to so many legions of others. Even gone these past ten years or so, he speaks and I listen, as if for the first time.

It is raining in San Francisco. It has for four or five or six days straight. I’m losing track. There’s a leak in my bathroom, a rhythmic crashing, that provides a kind of beat to my reading. I pray that the sun never rises over Bernal Hill again. Let there be sog. Today, I read, and read again, Maxwell’s very short story, “With Reference to an Incident at a Bridge”. It’s such a brief story that some might relegate it to the status of anecdote. There is little action, little character development, just a voice really. Not all that different, in a way, from Sense of an Ending, which also relies so heavily on the voice of one character. Except, and this is crucial, William Maxwell never treads water. His sentences are as clear, as honest, and as potentially deadly – as water itself.

“Incident at a Bridge” is also about the weight of guilt. As a Boy Scout in Lincoln, Illinois in the early part of the last century, the narrator commits an act that haunts him for the rest of his life. He’s a twelve year-old goody-two-shoes, the kind of scout who, “went out of his way to help elderly people across the street who could have managed perfectly well on their own.” He and his fellow Boy Scouts organize a few boys younger themselves into a troop of Cub Scouts, ostensibly to teach them the ropes.

We taught the Cub Scouts how to tie a clove hitch and a running bowline and how (if you were lucky) to build a fire without any matches and other skills appropriate to the outdoor life. Somebody, after a few weeks, decided there ought to be an initiation. Into what I don’t think anybody bothered to figure out.

This power to initiate, as it so often does, goes temporarily to the heads of the older boys. The narrator and his fellow Boy Scouts end up blindfolding the group of young recruits, which includes a kid named Maxie Rabinowitz (the son of a broke Jewish shopkeeper from the wrong side of town) and marching them to the outskirts of Lincoln. They stop at a bridge. The narrator then orders the Cub Scouts to run, at full speed, into a railing on the side of the bridge. All the boys got the wind knocked out of them.

Some readers conflate the first person narrator Maxwell often employs (an older man who recounts his boyhood in Lincoln, Illinois) with Maxwell himself. As if his work was mere autobiography. As if all he had to do was remember and transcribe. But few American writers have ever known better how to twist – and manipulate – real life into fiction than William Maxwell. So again, the incident at the bridge isn’t about Maxwell, and it isn’t true even if it’s true. Does this make any sense? I’m trying to say that turning true events into fiction is to carry them beyond memory. Great fiction writers contort the actual into something far greater: myth.

And so an incident on a bridge in a small Illinois town, in the 1920’s, becomes immortalized, burned into the souls of anybody who reads it. It isn’t so much about the improvised hazing ritual as it is about what we do with what can never be undone. Think of all the things you wish you could erase, forever, from the record. No matter how we airbrush our own histories, the hurt we have caused will, always, reach out for us out of the December rain.

This is why, for me, Maxwell’s story transcends anecdote. Here’s the second to last paragraph. The boys are on the ground, struggling to breathe.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. Some sins. I also believe that what is done is done and cannot be undone. The reason I didn’t throw myself on my knees and beg them (and God) to forgive me is that I knew He wouldn’t, and that even if he did, I wouldn’t forgive myself. Sick with shame at the pain I had inflicted, I tore Max Rabinowitz’s blindfold off and held him by the shoulders until his gasping subsided.

There is something frighteningly counterintuitive about the narrator’s inability to forgive himself. God might have mercy on me, but I never will. This is so much darker than the easier redemption of some of the books I read, as well as the many others I put down.

Although the narrator of “Incident at a Bridge” is Presbyterian, and he recites the Apostle’s Creed on the opening page, I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the story reminds me of something my rabbi in Chicago said this past Yom Kippur. One may never achieve atonement unless one begs the forgiveness of everyone one has sinned against. In other words, you can’t go straight to God. You got to take care of things down here first. My gut sank at the work I have to do, and the work that is too late to do. Maxwell’s story seems an attempt on the part of the narrator to make amends though he knows damn well such a thing is useless. Yet, he’s not going through the motions. What the story does, ultimately, is instruct him on the dangerousness of his own heart. Here’s the final glorious paragraph in full:

Considering the multitude of things that happen in any one person’s life, it seems fairly unlikely that those little boys remembered the incident for very long. It was an introduction to what was to come. And cruelty could never again take them totally by surprise. But I have remembered it. I have remembered it because it was the moment I learned I was not to be trusted.

Peter Orner is the author of two novels, two story collections (Little, Brown), and the editor of two oral histories (Voice of Witness/ McSweeney's/ Verso). His latest book is Am I Alone Here?, an essay collection published in November, 2016 by Catapult with illustrations by Eric Orner. A new book of oral history set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and co-edited with Dr. Evan Lyon, will be published by Voice of Witness/ Verso, in January, 2017. Peter Orner currently teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers as well as at San Francisco State University where he is currently chair of the Creative Writing Department. More from this author →