Friday, December 5, 2008

Revisiting an Old Friend

It's easy to get caught up in reading the hottest new authors and forget about old favorites. Recently as I surfed the web I found a reading group whose favorite book was William Maxwell's Time Will Darken It. Our group read and enjoyed two Maxwell books in the late 90's, but I had completely forgotten about him. It was time to revisit an old favorite.

The book's epigraph is a quote from “Artists on Art”, a book about landscape painting technique. It advises artists to add enough white to their paint mixture to produce a bright tint: “it must not be dark; on the contrary, it must be rather on the light side because time will darken it...”. And at first Maxwell's novel seems to be a bright charming landscape painting of the Midwest in 1912. Lawyer Austin King, his wife Martha and daughter Abbey live in Drapersville, Illinois in an innocent time when people still traveled by horse and buggy, had iceboxes on their back porches, and dropped in for visits without calling first.

When the Potter family, relatives of Austin's from Mississippi, arrive for a self-invited visit Martha is dismayed and Austin is sheepish, but it does not seem that this minor inconvenience could disturb the tranquility of the household. But slowly the presence of these visitors begins to take its toll. Austin, trying to please everyone, unable to express his feelings to his wife and unwilling to recognize the ulterior motives of his relatives, begins to lose all that he holds dear. His attempted kindness towards the Potter's daughter Nora, who harbors a burning crush on the older man, succeeds in harming them both. Again and again characters fail to understand each other, with unfortunate results.

Maxwell's prose is spare and elegant. The picture he paints of Elm Street and its residents is precisely and lovingly rendered. Behind the lace curtains he shows us the yearnings of characters trapped in the prim landscape of Drapersville. Maxwell's pace is measured; his story moves slowly in a way that seems to correspond to the time in which it takes place, a time not far into the twentieth century. He takes time to let you experience the changing of the seasons, the ebb and flow of small town life. But his plot can suddenly turn a corner and surprise you as well.

Revisiting William Maxwell reminded me once again of his wonderful talent for exploring the simple, sad moments we all experience in life.

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