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"...looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after..."

Strong passage from William Maxwell's short story "Haller's Second Home" (collected in All the Days and Nights):

He didn't really mind being continually pushed and shoved, herded from place to place, and sworn at. After all, it was the Army. It was not a school picnic. What he couldn't stand, as the day wore on, was the misery that he saw everywhere he looked. A great many of the men were younger than he was, and they became so worn out finally that they lost all hope and leaned against the wall in twos and threes, with the tears streaming down their faces. Eventually, he worked himself into such a fury that he began to shake all over, and a tough Irish sergeant came up to him and put both arms around him and said, "Wait a minute, buddy. You're all right. Take it easy, why don't you?" in the kindest voice Francis had ever heard in his life.

But the strangest thing was the continual pairing off, all day long - on the train, at the induction center, at camp, where, long after midnight, you found yourself still instinctively looking around for somebody to cling to, and look after. Somebody you'd never laid eyes on before that day became, for two hours, closer than any friend you'd ever had. When you were separated, your whole concern was for him - for what might be happening to him. While you had one person to look after, among the crowd, you were not totally lost yourself. When the two of you were separated for good, you looked around and there was someone in obvious desperation, and so the whole thing happened all over again.

Maxwell continually shifts the perspective in these stories, from one character to the next, which sometimes prevents the story from fully connecting with me. But when he narrows the focus, like this short passage with Francis Whitehead, the result is impeccable and totally resonant.

March 23, 2014 in Books | Permalink