William Maxwell - The Folded Leaf
William Maxwell writes in the small spaces. He explores the little sad areas of our lives that are comprised of looks that are not returned, thoughts that remain unuttered because we simply cannot figure out how to say them, and embraces we wish we have shared but did not because we lack the courage to put our arms around the person we love. The Folded Leaf is a beautiful, melancholy story by an author whose understated value has sadly caused a lack of popular appreciation compared to his flashier contemporaries - Hemingway, Nabokov, Bellow, Updike, Roth.
The Folded Leaf is the story of Lymie and Spud, two young boys who share a strong friendship, even though they seem utterly different. The novel is told primarily from the perspective of Lymie, a shy, withdrawn, introverted and very sensitive young man who loves Spud with all of his heart. Spud, on the other hand, is something of a strong man, an athlete who does not understand, but is able to appreciate, the sensitivity of his friend. They compliment one another, with Lymie taking security from Spud's strength while Spud draws another kind of strength from his friend.
The two boys love one another, with Lymie's love much the stronger, but the love remains platonic. It is the casual, affectionate, innocently physical love of young boys who become college men understanding that there is nobody else in the world more compatible with them than the other. A girl, of course, shatters this, but even though Spud may lose that first blush of pre-sexual affection, Lymie does not. The novel moves very slowly from the boys' strong relationship to a rather one-sided, heartbreaking examination of what happens when one friend moves on and the other cannot.
Is the story a homosexual one? It is hard to say. Spud and Lymie are physically affectionate, going so far as to spend almost their entire college life sleeping in the same bed. Note: Sleeping. While there is a lot left unsaid about Lymie's true feelings - he wonders, every now and again, when he shall meet a woman of his own to marry, but the wondering is academic rather than passionate - my reading of the novel is that Maxwell was happy to have Lymie's feelings remain ambiguous. Lymie is very much in love, and it is to the author's credit that the love does not have to be defined as sexual or emotional - it is simply what we see on the page. Lymie loves Spud and Spud loves Lymie: in different ways, it is true, but what they both feel is what we would call love. Maxwell is shrewd in avoiding the question of romantic or platonic love – what we have is love, just love, and it is shown to be enough. I highly doubt Lymie would have considered his feelings for Spud as anything wrong, and Spud - athletic, not very intelligent, given to boisterousness - certainly has no problem with his diminutive friend.
Maxwell shines the brightest when he is delving into Lymie's thoughts. We understand most of the novels scenes, from their school days to when they bunk together at university to when Spud becomes a (rather ignoble) boxer to Spud's engagement with Sally, from Lymie's perspective, allowing us to see the friendship in a way that Spud, and an outsider, never would. Consider this long quote: 'Lymie didn't know what the trouble was, but he was not dismayed. He had worn Spud down once before and he was sure he could do it again. Every day between four-fifteen and four-thirty he appeared at the gymnasium and stood a few feet away from the punching bag where Spud, if he wanted his gloves tied on or any small service like that, wouldn't have to go far to find him. When Spud came up from the showers, Lymie was there waiting by the locker, like a faithful hound. He made no move to open the lock, or to touch anything inside the locker that belonged to Spud. Occasionally while Spud was dressing and afterward on the way home, Lymie would say something to him, but Lymie was always careful not to put the remark in the form of a question, so there was no actual need for Spud to reply.' This is unrequited love at its most honest. Sadly for Lymie, Spud of course does not appreciate the layers of meaning and feeling behind Lymie's behaviour, and of course there is conflict that ends in tears. The novel ends the only way it should, but there is hope for the friendship and hope for Lymie, forced by circumstance to face the reality that even though his boyhood love may never have lost its intensity of feeling, Spud's certainly has.