BILLIE DYER AND OTHER STORIES. By William Maxwell, Alfred A. Knopf, 120 pp., $18
READING a good short story is a little bit like looking at a diamond in sunlight. You turn the gem this way and that, and with each turn you see another facet, something you might have missed on an earlier look. The diamond never changes; the way you see it does.
After reading William Maxwell's stories in "Billie Dyer," most of which appeared in The New Yorker magazine where he was a fiction editor for many years, you turn them over in your mind to make sure you've caught all the facets.
His characters are so well-drawn you want to know more and more about them, whether you like them or not. His writing is simple and direct, poignant without being sentimental. In one story he describes a character's peculiar but somehow appealing style of courtship: "...when he was courting his wife, he never brought her candy or flowers but simply appeared, in the evening after supper, and stretched out in the porch swing with his head in her lap and went to sleep."
Maxwell's stories are set in the middle of Illinois, where he grew up, and he gives the reader a fine sense of time - the first half of this century - and place. The title story tells of a black man who became a surgeon, when few blacks could become professionals, and one of "the 10 most distinguished men that the town had produced." But it's really about race relations, courage, friendship, dignity, and drive.
Several stories are about relatives - real or imagined - of Maxwell. Reading about these people is like watching an artist carefully paint a portrait.
Here is a description of a curmudgeon friend of his father: "He had sad eyes and a sallow complexion and two deep furrows running down his cheeks. The tips of his fingers were stained with nicotine and the whites of his eyes were yellowish also, in a way more often found in dogs than in human beings. Nothing that he said was ever calculated to make people feel better about themselves, but he could be very funny."
How characters react to and cope with adversity marks almost all of the stories - from the perseverance of the aforementioned Billie Dyer to how Hap, a young boy and the narrator's brother, compensates for a lost limb. Hap is told to lead with his wooden leg when he walks instead of dragging it.
"But when Hap was tired he forgot. It has been more than seventy years since we were boys together in that house, but my shoulder remembers the weight of his hand as we walked home through the dusk. If he saw someone coming toward us, the hand was instantly withdrawn." Those few sentences contain volumes about the interdependence of siblings, pride, loyalty, and the unfathomable hurt of an injured child. The brothers in the dusk, one with a shapeless wooden peg for a leg, become real and walk away with y our heart.
Another very short story tells of the base cruelty schoolchildren are sometimes capable of. The main character instantly becomes ashamed after doing something to another child. It's fairly minor, as cruelty goes, but he remembers the incident all of his life because "it was the moment I learned that I was not to be trusted."
Reading these stories about when life was supposedly more simple than it is now makes you come away with the clear understanding that life has always been complicated and hard: that good people sometimes get treated badly, that often the most innocuous and blameless of lives is afflicted with bad fortune. But you know, too, that life and characters, especially in the hands of a good writer, are endlessly interesting.
What's perhaps most appealing about this collection is that after finishing a story, you don't have to wonder what it's about. Unlike many New Yorker stories, the point is clear. The author respects the reader: He doesn't make you feel stupid by obscuring the meaning. That's refreshing these days.