‘Over by the River’ by William Maxwell

This long story breaks all the rules. It is an episodic portrait of the Carringtons, a well-off family living in a smart apartment near the river on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Nothing much happens – breakfasts, school runs, dog walks, troubled dreams. The two young girls catch cold. A domestic maid leaves suddenly. The cook of a friend commits suicide by jumping into the river. That’s about it. There’s no plot and the narrative focus switches from character to character – each member of the family, their friends, a bag lady, the suicidal cook, their dog – even to a piano at one point (creative writing classes usually advise against this courting of narrative confusion). It is thirty-five pages long and it’s riveting. Of course, Maxwell knew what he was doing – he was fiction editor of the New Yorker for over thirty years: it was to his porch in Connecticut that the young Salinger drove to read aloud the first draft of what became The Catcher in the Rye. Few writers have a better feel for what Maxwell in his preface to his Collected Stories calls “the natural history of home”. He’s like a shape-shifting anthropologist, continually swapping hosts so he can show rather than tell the reader what’s happening. And this dipping inside other minds sometimes induces vertigo. When George Carrington stares at himself in the mirror one morning he realises his fatal flaw. “Nobody was ever as real to him as he was to himself. If people knew how little he cared whether they lived or died, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.” And then we’re off chasing the dog again. This story works because of its restlessness and the absolute control Maxwell has over his material. As the young William Faulkner once observed of Sherwood Anderson’s stories: “No sustained plot to bother you, nothing tedious; only the sharp episodic phases of people.”

First published in The New Yorker, Jul 1 1974, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in All the Days and Nights, Knopf, 1994, currently a Vintage Classic

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