By Maura Stanton
Featured Art: Summer Breezes by Gustave Baumann
William Maxwell’s great short novel, set in the farm country of central Illinois, where I, too, grew up, pulls us into the story of a murder with such force that we can’t stop reading.
The first chapter is called “A Pistol Shot.” Maxwell begins with the setting: “The gravel pit was about a mile east of town, and so deep that boys under sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there.” This sentence tells us that we’re out in isolated country. But it also suggests that this is a novel about “boys under sixteen.”
The next sentence introduces the narrator. “I knew it only by hearsay” he says of the gravel pit. And then we get to know something about his imagination as he tells us why boys like him are forbidden to swim there—“It had no bottom, people said, and because I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China, I took this to be a literal statement of fact.”
Now in the second paragraph—that soon!—the gun goes off. “One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring.” In two brief sentences, we see the men at work in the dark, see them startle at the sound, look at each other, wonder, talk, get back to work. “Within a few seconds it had grown light. No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn’t see anyone walking on the road.” The narrator gives us the facts. “The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.”
There are only five more paragraphs in this incredible chapter. By the end, we’ve been pulled into a mystery that is not only about a sensational crime, with a severed ear, but also about the scrupulous torments of adolescent guilt.
Mavis Gallant, a brilliant Canadian writer of short stories mostly set in Europe, describes William Maxwell in the Preface to her own Collected Stories: “He seems to me the most American of all the Americans I have known.” Maxwell’s America here is central Illinois—the flat fields, towers of cloud, isolated lives, passion, guns. You still see the gun clubs’ Burma-Shave-style signs for Guns Save Lives as you drive through on your way to elsewhere.