Take away the pitcher and the bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too — the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the open door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. (p. 113)
Life can change dramatically and irrevocably in a split second. This happened to Cletus Smith when his father, Clarence, a tenant farmer, shot and killed his friend and neighboring farmer, Lloyd Wilson. In imagining the impact of this event, William Maxwell goes well beyond the obvious (a man dead, a family in mourning), to understand how the murder came to happen in the first place, and how these factors would have affected Cletus.
The narrator of this story was Cletus’ childhood friend only briefly, just before the murder. And children, as we know, are highly unreliable narrators. Many years later he gained access to newspaper accounts, and developed a more complete picture. And yet, he understands even this view is unreliable:
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)
Despite this acknowledged flaw, our narrator reconstructs the events that led to Lloyd Wilson’s murder, and tells an emotional story of two families, a friendship, and marriages gone sour. Our narrator is also not immune to tragedy and its aftermath: he lost his mother at a young age, and saw the devastating impact on his father. Children are but observers of this drama, and are powerless to influence it.
Maxwell writes with such economy, packing surprising emotional depth into just a few sentences. Take, for example, the quote that opens this review: can’t you just feel Cletus’ entire world crumbling around him? A few pages later Maxwell describes the family dog’s response as her world also changes forever, and instead of appearing silly or superfluous, it reinforced the weight of the tragedy that befell this family. And always, running through the story like a current, is the narrator’s guilt over how he treated Cletus later on. He keeps trying to “rearrange things to conform to this end,” and simply cannot. This is a powerful story; highly recommended.
A special thank-you to Rachel @ Booksnob for recommending this book. In her review she wrote, “the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved.” That’s so true, and I’m only sorry it took me over a year to get around to reading this gem.