Friday, January 25, 2008

A literary coincidence

Cathy Zimmerman, a good friend, a prodigious reader and a skilled writer, recently passed on some books to my wife, Diane, who in turn dealt out a couple to me. Last night I picked up one from the unstable, looming pile next to my bed.

It immediately seized me. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is by William Maxwell. Many of you may know the book and the author. I didn’t, although the name “William Maxwell” was vaguely familiar. Then again perhaps I had merely met a William Maxwell once; it is a common enough name.

According to Diane, Cathy had said the book was a murder mystery. Well, it is, sort of. It’s mostly a reminiscence artfully constructed around a murder. The murder hovers over deftly etched descriptions of life and relationships in a rural Illinois community at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Today I planned to read more of the book after returning from a leisurely errand downtown. In the Pearl, I chomped through a Westphalia ham sandwich, sipped coffee from a paper cup and nibbled on oatmeal-raisin cookie at Whole Foods. Then I wandered around Powell’s but managed to escape without buying anything (I was looking for “Thomas Paine and the Promise of America," but, oddly, they were out of it). I rode the trolley back to a leisurely walking distance to my car, which I had parked on a northwest Portland side street.

Driving home I flicked on NPR and got Terry Gross, always chancy. I thanked the gods that she wasn’t fawning over the lead bass player of a heavy metal band. Instead, she was in mid-interview with some elderly, somewhat feeble-sounding gentleman who got my attention with a reference to E.B. White and his times with other New Yorker writers. The old man allowed as how he still wrote with a typewriter, adding that he and modernity had reached an accommodation. He was enjoying being in his 80s, he said, and had even surprised himself recently by running to catch a prized, available cab. His running hadn’t been all that fast, he admitted, but it was fast enough. He got the taxi before someone else did.

The interview wound down, and Gross closed out with “Thank you, William Maxwell, for allowing us to visit with you.”

William Maxwell.

The same William Maxwell whose book awaited me at home.

The interview had been conducted in 1995, five years before Maxwell’s death in 2000. It was being replayed to honor the centenary of his birth. An anthology of his work is being published for the occasion. Indeed, there is a growing sense among literary historians that Maxwell, who wrote six novels and was fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years until 1976, was among the great writers of the 20th Century.

Once home, I searched the web and learned that this passed-along “murder mystery” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1980.

Excuse me, now, I have a book to finish.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home