Something You Don’t Want to Hear

Writer/editor William Maxwell by Nigel Parry


I’m going to tell you something you don’t want to hear.


(I’m not sure yet what that is. I just like the look and sound of that sentence. For me, in truth, so much of life is about the vibe. You know what I mean? It’s like what Paul Simon said, when a reporter asked him to comment on the lyrics of a song that happened to be playing on his car radio — Paul Simon, mind you, one of the greatest lyricists in the history of pop music. “I don’t know, man. I’m not listening to them. I’m just digging the groove.”)


So, let’s see.


What you don’t want to hear is … is … this:


It’s all fairly simple.


Yeah, that.



I saw people all around me, saw what they were like, understood what they were going through, and without waiting for them to love me, loved them.

William Maxwell, author of that quote, wrote six novels, sixty short stories, and forty modern-day folktales, which he himself called “improvisations.” He was also fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine for many years. 


In a 2010 review of Maxwell’s oeuvre when it was reissued by Library of America, Edward Mendelson wrote this:

The world of his serious fiction looks like the real one, but the ways in which things happen there — the invisible connections between events — are exotic and unreal, driven by primitive magic and unseen forces, sometimes generous, usually malevolent.

Mendelson goes on to claim that “all of Maxwell’s novels have a story but no plot.”


It may be that you agree with Mendelson. You want plot, that is, a connected series of events provoked by the actions of humans who enjoy free will. You want to see action, consequences, and reaction to those consequences. You’re drawn to books and films that help you make sense of the chaos around you, to art that is somehow instructive. Above all, the idea of a universe that is not morally inflected is repugnant to you. If a story does not make some attempt at a moral or emotional truth, it’s worse than useless: it’s a perverse denial of fiction’s reason for existing.


As for Maxwell, Mendelson claims that he cared mostly about art and the past. His mother died when he was ten years old, and that changed everything for him: “he seems to have experienced [her death] less as an event in his personal history than as a condition of the world, like the Fall of Man.” The adult Maxwell came to regard life as intrinsically tragic. And so he turned to art and in particular to writing, “the imaginative art of memory.” One might say about Maxwell what a critic once observed about the Roman poet Virgil: that his writing aims to create “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision”:

Its purpose is … to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.

It’s that “detachment,” above all, to which Mendelson objects. For him and for many others, art should not exist as a refuge or retreat from life’s harsh realities. In fact, once we lose confidence in our ability to make choices that affect the future, we’ve lost everything.

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War


I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
My traveling companion is nine years old
He is the child of my first marriage
But I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland




When my older son was still quite young — not yet ten years old, like poor William Maxwell when his mother died, nor even nine years old, like the son of the man singing in “Graceland” — he filled all the gaps between his sentences with humming. There before me stood this lisping child of mine, listening with a dreamy expression to something that I couldn’t hear at all. The music of the spheres, maybe? I had the impression in those moments that my son was mostly elsewhere. What I could see and hear of him was ghostlike:

I’m going to Graceland
Memphis, Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
Poor boys and pilgrims with families
And we are going to Graceland
And my traveling companions
Are ghosts and empty sockets
I’m looking at ghosts and empties
But I’ve reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

My sense was that my son had been born into a life of poetry, while I was condemned to live a life of prose.


What I could do in the meantime, though, the very least I could do for him and me, was to keep listening for the music. That vibe, that groove.




So when I say “it’s all fairly simple,” this is what I mean:


I mean that in this Age of Trump, when no day passes without our having to confront so much that is sordid and evil in human nature and society, it can be a radically life-affirming and ultimately moral act to undertake the simple task of creating something beautiful and putting it out into the world.


I mean that beauty can be as simple as Simon’s enigmatic phrase “ghosts and empty sockets.” As simple as notes from a pedal steel guitar played over the steady thump of a bass. As simple (but not easy!) as a true and lasting friendship.


I mean that it doesn’t really matter whether William Maxwell was actually — deep down, so to speak — as wise, gentle, and kind as he is said to have been by his many devoted friends. (Mendelson takes pains to make clear that in his considered judgment, he certainly was not.) Nor does it matter whether Paul Simon is quite as insensitive and egotistical as he’s rumored to be. What matters, quite simply, is the effort an individual makes, day in and day out, to be both loving and lovable (“without waiting for them to love me …”).


None of this is anything we want to hear, because we’d prefer to believe that the reasons for our anxiety and unhappiness are complicated. We want plot, not mere story. We want the lyrics — “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” — not just the groove.


That’s okay! It’s okay to want all of that.


But when you can no longer escape the truth that sometimes bad things happen for no reason and there’s nothing at all you can do about it, you may find consolation and even hope in something as simple as the look and sound of these words, which I adapt from the title of William Maxwell’s best book: so long, friend, see you tomorrow.

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