cover image All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell

All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell

William F. Maxwell. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (415pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43829-8

For over six decades, Maxwell has scrupulously eschewed literary postures for a crystalline elegance almost unparalleled in contemporary American fiction. A New Yorker editor for 40 years and American Book Award recipient for his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, Maxwell has selected 23 short stories and 21 ""improvisations"" that he deems worth saving. All the tales from Over by the River and Other Stories (1977) and from Billie Dyer and Other Stories (1992) are included, as are 16 of the 29 improvisations originally published as The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales (1966). Three strong uncollected stories-""A Game of Chess,"" ""The Lily-White Boys"" and ""What He Was Like""-as well as six new improvisations complete the group. Maxwell has always braided his family history into his storyteller's art, and the first section here draws much from his experiences as a boy in Lincoln, Ill. (where he was born in 1908), from time spent in France and from contemporary life in New York. In these stories, people frequently suffer under the misapprehension that they understand those around them, or even themselves, and are recurrently made restless by indefinable dreams or fears. The keys to deliverance are, invariably for Maxwell, compassion and love. The improvisations, which make up the second section, are ``spontaneous inventions'' created for special occasions, such as his wife's birthday, commemorated in the fine title piece. Many begin with ""Once upon a time"" and become linear, sometimes enigmatic fables for adults, illuminating issues of commitment, betrayal, death, personal responsibility and human kindness. This volume is conclusive evidence that Maxwell stands at the pinnacle of American letters. (Jan.)