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Maxwell Has Gift For Getting Stories ‘Just Right’

“All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell” By William Maxwell (Knopf, $25, 393 pp.)

William Maxwell notes in the preface to this collection that when he was 25, he mistakenly thought that going to sea was the proper training for an aspiring fiction writer. “I had no idea that threequarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal.”

That material, he discovered, was “My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-thanlife-size characters … that I was presented with when I came into this world.” And since that time in 1933 when he sought his dubious seafaring experience, he has written six novels and some of the best contemporary short stories by an American.

This collection of 23 stories includes selections as early as 1939 (“Young Francis Whitehead”) and as late as 1992 (“What He Was Like”). Many of them were written for the New Yorker; a 1940 collection called “Short Stories from the New Yorker,” which I bought some years ago in a used-book store, includes his story “Homecoming,” sandwiched in between works by Woolcott Gibbs and Thomas Wolfe.

“All the Days and Nights” indicates an author of immense gifts, one who understands what a short story is and what it takes to create a good one.

His stories are so fully realized that they recall the observation once made by Truman Capote. He maintained that “The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.”

“Billie Dyer,” taken from Maxwell’s 1992 collection of stories, is such a story. It’s the portrait of an old black man from the author’s hometown of Lincoln, Ill., who endured the vagaries of racism in the North. This was not the oppression of Mississippi at the turn of the century; it was more subtle, yet in its own way as devastating.

The white townspeople agreed Billie was a bright lad, but “at the same time they appeared to feel that in becoming a doctor he had imitated the ways of white people … and done something that was not really necessary or called for, since there were, after all, plenty of white doctors. Apart from the doctors, the only things I can think of that the white people of Lincoln were at that time willing to share with the colored people were the drinking water and cemetery.”

This is a typical passage of Maxwell’s: The language is simple and clear, with a minimum of adjectives and adverbs. The sentences have a rhythm that invites reading aloud. While the framework is uncluttered, the stories themselves are intricately layered.

The author returns to a character, a theme, again and again, so that in the end we do feel as Capote suggested we should: that the story is “absolute and final.”