‘Homecoming’ by William Maxwell

Homecoming by William Maxwell, 1938

The magic trick:

Writing an intimate story, even though it’s in the third person, by including immediately recognizable characteristics and feelings

The world is a fragile place in the fiction of William Maxwell. Loss and sensitivity to loss looms over every sentence. But the worst never crashes down in Maxwell’s work. It’s just there, a dull ache in our periphery. The stories themselves are too gentle for any crashing, crushing loss. The plots are too subtle. In “Homecoming,” Jordan Smith is back home for Christmas, and he wants to visit his friends, Farrel and Ann like the old days. But Ann is dead now. Things aren’t like the old days at all. He finds himself walking to their house out of habit. He doesn’t want to see Farrel at the old house. He’d rather run into him naturally around town. He doesn’t want to face Ann’s death.

These sentences I’m typing to describe the plot are nearly word-for-word lifts from the story’s early paragraphs. It’s written in the third person. It’s not fancy or frilly but rather straight to the point. And yet it’s incredibly intimate. You feel immediately that you know Jordan. It’s because these details – his not wanting to see his old friend at the house – are so honest and so human you can’t help but relate. And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.

The selection:

“I expect you don’t remember me. It’s been three years since I left Watertown. You weren’t so very old then.”

Jordan had not meant to stay, but he found himself taking off his overcoat and his muffler and laying them across the newel post. The last time he had come here, Ann had met him at the door and her face had lighted up with pleasure. “It’s Jordan,” she had said. Even now, after three years, he could hear her voice and her pleasure at the sight of him. “Here’s Jordan, Tom. He’s come to say goodbye.”

The front hall and the living room were both strangely still. Forgetting that he was not alone, Jordan listened a moment until the oil furnace rumbling away to itself in the basement reassured him.

“I can’t stay,” he said aloud to Timothy. On the hall tree was an old battered gray hat of Farrel’s. Jordan started to hang his new brown one beside it, and then he changed his mind. With the hat still in his hand, he followed Timothy into the living room. There was a Christmas tree in the front window, with red balls and silver balls and tinsel and tin foil in strips hanging from it, and strand upon strand of colored lights that were not lighted. Under the tree Timothy’s presents were still laid out, two days after Christmas, in the boxes they had come in: a cowboy hat, a toy revolver, a necktie and handkerchiefs, a giant flashlight, a book on scouting.

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