The Folded Leaf
by William Maxwell (1945)
The Library of America (2008)
pp. 335 – 560 of William Maxwell: Early Novels and Stories
With The Folded Leaf, William Maxwell’s 1945 novel, I have now read four of Maxwell’s six novels. I think, to this point, this is my least favorite, and that would include his first, Bright Center of Heaven, which is quite flawed as a kind of knock off of Wolff’s To the Lighthouse that Maxwell essentially repudiated later in life; in the end I admired it a great deal. I’ve made peace with the fact that none of the books I have left will live up to what I assume will always be my favorite of his works, So Long, See You Tomorrow, and that anything left will also likely not overtake They Came Like Swallows as Maxwell’s other masterpiece. I just wish I liked The Folded Leaf more. Ah well, I have two left — Time Will Darken It and The Chateau — and I am still excited to get to them.
The premise of The Folded Leaf is definitely one that appeals to me: it’s a school novel, in a way. I love school novels (see Old School by Tobias Wolff and A Separate Peace by John Knowles). The Folded Leaf begins in a swimming class, all of the boys naked while they wait for instruction. Here the two main characters meet: the sad and physically frail Lymie Peters and the athletic and temperamental Spud Latham.
Apparently this opening chapter was a short story, and Maxwell was encouraged to keep going by Louise Bogan. As the story goes on, not only do Lymie and Spud become unlikely friends. Lymie and his family see that they can provide some stability to Spud, who has recently moved to town and feels the need to fight nearly everyone he encounters. Spud, for his part, sees that Lymie is sad (like Maxwell, Lymie lost his mother at an early age).
Soon they are best friends, though their differences do keep them from fully communicating with one another. This keeps up intrigue as well, though, and that feeds their attraction to one another. Maxwell more explicitly than I would have expected from an American novel in 1945, explores clear — if unarticulated by the characters themselves — homosexual attraction.
It’s not entirely clear to me that either young man is gay as both their relationship and the times they lived in make that difficult to determine. Even if either were, he likely didn’t even acknowledge it to himself. But Maxwell is definitely exploring that potential, and I think he does so with care and candor as we realize just how much they mean to one another:
Lymie slept on his right side and Spud curled against him, with his fists in the hollow of Lymie’s back. In five minutes the whole bed was warmed and Spud was sound asleep. It took Lymie longer, as a rule. He lay there, relaxed and drowsy, aware of the cold outside the covers and of the warmth coming to him from Spud, and Spud’s odor, which was not stale or sweaty or like the odor of any other person. Then he moved his right foot until the outer part of the instep came in contact with Spud’s bare toes, and from this one point of reality he swung out safely into darkness, into no sharing whatever.
But Maxwell is exploring the comfort of this relationship as well as the agony of this relationship. To do so, he is utilizing his own biography — like he does in They Came Like Swallows and So Long, See You Tomorrow — since we can see a lot of Lymie in him, though he acknowledges that his own agony and jealousy arose from his attraction to a professor’s daughter who started dating another man. I’m thrilled he used that to explore the relationship between Lymie and Spud.
The story of Lymie and Spud is fascinating, and I’m glad Maxwell kept going with that. I just wish that was all the novel was. Instead — and this is my main problem with the novel and why it is right now my least favorite Maxwell novel — Maxwell diverts his attention side characters often and for long stretches. For example, you’ll follow Lymie or Spud home and then the narrative goes into a parent’s life or background. That was welcome when the book began, since that actually helped me know Lymie and Spud better. But when Maxwell keeps this up to fill in the stories of teachers, fellow students, and several others, it becomes rather oppressive and, to me, detracts from the immediacy of the central story and flattens the narrative over the course of the novel. Some of these characters end up playing bigger roles, but many get their section in the sun and then don’t really play another role.
Maxwell’s efforts to inhabit the minds and play out the narratives of otherwise unknown characters will pay off perfectly in So Long, See You Tomorrow, but here it felt unnecessary and ultimately made this a struggle for me. A struggle I’m ultimately glad I endured, but a struggle nonetheless.
Incidentally, The Folded Leaf is one of the fifty novels on my List of Betterment (more on that here). Indeed, it is the first I’ve read from that list! When I tweeted my thanks for inspiring this list, Andy Miller replied: “Good luck, enjoy it, even the ones you don’t.” And I took his advice and very much enjoyed this, even if I didn’t fully enjoy the book.