Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell

I am slowly making my way through The Good Men Project's list(s) of "The best LGBT books of all time." Well, those lists and a million others. It sounds like I'm doggedly reading my way through all the gay books. There are so many books. Rather, I'm reading the books on this list that interest me... like this one.

I was most curious, first curious, about The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I've read and loved many of his short stories, and I love his short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow--but a gay novel?

William Maxwell was married, and had two children. I don't know anything beyond that about his sexual preferences. The obit from the Times is fabulous, although (because?) it does not address the issue--highly recommended if you want to know more about this guy. The Paris Review interview from 1983 is also awesome.

There is much on the internet about how this is or is not a gay novel, and about its "gay subtext." I'm not sure there is a gay subtext. It is certainly a novel about a young man who feels very strongly about his friend. Perhaps who is "passionately in love with" his friend but maybe there is something else going on there. There is something that isn't romantic love--and lust is often, but not necessarily a component--but is more than friendship in the sense that we usually think of friendship. Many of us have had these kinds of friendships: essential, perhaps more essential than many of the romantic relationships we've had. That kind of soul-fusing, heart-melding stuff they talk about in Victorian novels and R&B songs of the 50's and 60's. The novel was published in 1948, and the physicality between these boys is so different from physicality between boys today: for example, in their rooming house when they go away to college, they share a bed. Mores were different, accepted behavior was different, things are questioned now that wouldn't've been questioned then.

It is a novel about the nerdy guy who's close friends with the jock, and this friendship survives the pair going to college, the jock joining a fraternity, the jock dating a girl who is of course good friends with the nerdy guy. The three of them spend some good times hanging out, even on the girl's family porch swing. Eventually, the jock is threatened by the nerdy guy's friendship with the girl, and the good times come to an end. One of the most perfect moments is when Lymie (the nerd) is at Spud's house (Spud is the jock, of course) and Spud assumes that Lymie will sleep over as he has so many times before: "The bed's big enough," Spud says, when his mom says it's time for Lymie to go home. "We've slept together in it lots of times." But Lymie gets his stuff together to go, and
On the way down the stairs he remembered the feeling he had had the first afternoon that he came home with Spud. It was a kind of premonition, he realized. Everything he had thought would happen then was happening now. He had been wrong only about the time.
The feeling he'd had was that Spud's family wouldn't want him there, and he'd be infringing. Instead, they take him in and he spends a lot of his time there through high school and into college. Lymie's mom died when he was ten, and he and his father live in a series of furnished apartments, and take their meals in restaurants. Lymie is some kind of in love with Spud, but he's also some kind of in love with Spud's mom, Mrs. Latham, and his whole family, and Spud's home:
He had thought he remembered what it used to be like but he hadn't at all. . . . He had totally forgotten how different furniture was that people owned themselves from the kind that came with a furnished apartment; and that tables and chairs could tell you, when you walked into a place, what kind of people lived there.
Maxwell does such a beautiful job laying out the details as Lymie would notice them. So much of what I love about So Long, See You Tomorrow is the way it describes and evokes boyhood, childhood, growing up. That's so much of what I love about this one, too.

But the beginning of the end--or maybe the end of the end--is when Lymie buys Sally--his friend, Spud's steady--violets, and Spud gets so jealous.
Lymie, who from long habit should have been sensitive to the changes in Spud's mood, had no idea that anything was wrong. The person who is both intelligent and observing cannot at the same time be innocent. He can only pretend to be; to others sometimes, sometimes to himself. Since Lymie didn't notice that anything was wrong with Spud, one is forced to conclude that he didn't wish to notice it.
Of course, Spud doesn't have to be jealous of Lymie and Sally. In some sense, whether romantic or not, they are both madly in love with him. And whether Lymie is gay or not, whether he goes on to marry a woman and live a "normal" life, in some way, Spud is and will always be his first love.

I liked this book so much. It took me a while to get into it, and then I couldn't stop.

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