I love Harvill Press. Normally I don’t pay a lot of attention to the publishers, because I find most of them produce roughly the same mix of books I love, books I hate and books I don’t care about. But with Harvill, I know for sure that every time I see that little panther symbol, I can be assured of enjoying the book. I think the first Harvill book I read was The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, and then there was Broken April by Ismail Kadare and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and a whole load of others. Now, like everyone else, it has been swallowed up by Random House, and I don’t think the panther is used any more.
So when I saw the familiar little panther symbol on the spine of this book in Fawkes bookshop in Hampstead, I decided almost immediately to buy it, even though I’d never heard of William Maxwell before. On top of the panther, it was the first line that hooked me:
“The gravel pit was about a mile east of town, and the size of a small lake, and so deep that boys under sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there. I knew it only by hearsay.”
Very simple words, but they communicate immediately the major elements of the story: something bad will happen in the gravel pit, affecting the childhood of this boy under sixteen who has been forbidden to go there.
The story continues in this vein, with men at the gravel pit hearing a gunshot in the early morning, and from there a murder is described, all in the same simple, restrained, non-sensational language. The narrator is an old man now, looking back on it all and feeling guilty for ignoring the son of the murderer, who he had been friends with before the murder, when he saw him again later on.
It’s a short book, just 135 pages, but it felt longer. I don’t mean that in a bad way, that it dragged on too long. I mean that, just as the first line communicated so much in a short space, so the rest of the story seems to cover a lot of ground, to make you know the characters better than you know characters in a lot of books three times as long. The language is unhurried, too, with long digressions and asides – most of the first half doesn’t deal with the murder story at all, but with the narrator’s childhood. I got to the end and wondered how on earth Maxwell had managed to cram so much into such a short book without ever sounding rushed.
One of the quotes on the inside cover is from John Updike: “Maxwell’s voice is one of the wisest in American fiction; it is, as well, one of the kindest.” I can see exactly what he meant. The book deals with murder, infidelity, jealousy, betrayal of a friend, and yet all of the characters who are doing the murdering and betraying are sympathetic in some way. He communicates the injustice of the tenant farmers’ positions, but gives the landlords their side of the story too, and doesn’t make them into stock figures. He is kind to all of his characters and gives them all a voice – even the dog gets a few paragraphs from his point of view. This doesn’t diminish the drama, but it does feel more real than a story that plays up the good vs evil dichotomy. It conveys life in all its complexities, and in the end I felt sorrier for the murderer than for his victim.