Kirkus Reviews QR Code
MY MENTOR by Alec Wilkinson Kirkus Star


A Young Man’s Friendship with William Maxwell

by Alec Wilkinson

Pub Date: April 4th, 2002
ISBN: 0-618-12301-6
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A lovely tribute to novelist and New Yorker editor William Maxwell (1908–2000), who was for many years a mentor to Wilkinson (A Violent Act, 1993, etc.), as well as a neighbor, a father figure, and a friend.

“I derived my identity from Maxwell,” states Wilkinson, though he admits later that he also was shaped by his father, a man of many foibles with whom he failed to make the elementary connection that he had with Maxwell. There is a wonderful clear-headedness here, despite all the emotions swarming about. The older man would have appreciated Wilkinson’s uncluttered exposition of their relationship, for Maxwell was a writer of enormous elegance in work charged with feeling: “A writer should hold nothing back. Everything you have is never more than enough for the purpose at hand,” he believed. He was also a skillful editor: Wilkinson depicts Maxwell bringing imagination, receptivity, and sympathy, as well as intimacy with the technical possibilities, to the job of “understanding what a writer is trying to say and helping him say it if he needs the help.” Employing long quotes, Wilkinson draws a noble portrait of Maxwell and his wife, Emmy. He creates an enduring testimony to their long friendship, down to the last days when his affection for Maxwell was “worn like a garment over a sadness that was part loneliness and part despair and anger at being deprived of the one man I loved.” The element of catharsis is never gratuitous, but used to further the reader’s appreciation of Maxwell and of a relationship between two men that rings of Maxwell’s words: “You don’t thank people for being your friend, you thank God for your good fortune in having them as a friend.”

Wilkinson learned well from his mentor and brings that emotive, sympathetic bearing, beautiful and melancholy, with great immediacy to this homage.