Revisiting novels can be a tortuous affair, sometimes bringing the painful realisation that we’ve outgrown favourite books and writers. Happily for me, The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell has provoked the opposite response. Maxwell’s nuanced and tender tale of male friendship remains a quiet triumph. Set in 1920’s Illinois, it charts the adolescence of pals Lymie Peters and Spud Latham, whose alliance hinges on Spud providing protection and social acceptance in exchange for Lymie’s devotion. In an era before male platonic love was considered questionable, their intense bond is fatally tested instead by misunderstandings, boyhood trauma, and the scarring silence of things left unsaid.
On the face of it, an unlikely jock-nerd pairing, their story begins at a school swimming lesson, when new boy Spud rescues Lymie from a near-drowning incident. Muscular and vigorous, Spud’s athleticism impresses the slight and distinctly unsporty Lymie, whose own tendency is towards bookish introspection.
Spud is the personification of Lymie’s most frequent daydream, the one where the guys like him and the girls smile in his direction. Spud, for his part, seems to sense a certain fragility in his new friend and takes him under his wing.
While their physicality is poles apart, their connection, if they did but realise it, is forged on a sense of alienation, from their fathers in particular.
As the emotionally unavailable breadwinner, Spud’s father is the archetypal early 20th century American dad, and is scorned by his son for uprooting the family in a desperate search for work. In this new neighbourhood, the Latham’s standard of living has slipped, along with Mr Latham’s self-respect.
Motherless Lymie is also harbouring resentment, his father being prone to behaviour ‘not becoming in a man of forty-five.’ A frequenter of speakeasies and the kind of man who bends forward to peer at a waitress’s cleavage, Mr Peters maintains a seedy personal life and little interest in his only child.
For both Spud and Lymie, lack of closeness to their fathers will shape their own characters and come to haunt their future. While Lymie tends to sublimate his feelings, Spud’s are expressed through physical violence. We’re told, prophetically, that ‘everything flowed out through his fists.’
First published in 1945, Maxwell’s typically understated story is a masterclass in the slow burn. As hormones rage and the path towards adulthood becomes thornier, boyhood high jinks make way for underlying tensions and jealousy. Both boys have emotions they cannot understand or articulate, not least their feelings for each other.
Their intimacy is, at times, undoubtedly homoerotic, but Maxwell subtly imbues it with an innocence that is unexpected to modern readers. For a time they share a bed, on cold nights clinging together.
‘Lymie slept on his right side and Spud curled against him, with his fists in the hollow of Lymie’s back.’
Whether repressed homosexuality, pure platonic love, or something in between, The Folded Leaf contains the most unique evocation of male friendship I’ve come across. The writing is beautiful and the final chapters quietly profound.
One for your unjustly neglected gems shelf.
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The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell published by Vintage Classics, 320 pages.