The Folded Leaf tells the story of two boys growing up together in 1920s Chicago. Lymie is successful at school but quiet, shy and physically weak. Spud, on the other hand, is everything Lymie isn’t. Confident and detached, he more than makes up for his struggles in class with his athletic prowess. He’s never met a boy he can’t best in a fight, and more to the point he’s not scared to start one. From the moment their paths cross at a swimming class at school, Lymie is Spud’s devoted acolyte. As the novel charts their progress through high school to university, Lymie’s feelings for Spud deepen into an unnamed love, which manifests itself as an inseparable friendship. When Lymie introduces Spud to Sally Forbes and the two fall in love, almost unbearable strains are placed upon their relationship.
As a modern-day reader, it’s impossible to not to comment on the homo-erotic element of the story, although I understand this wasn’t a consideration when the book was published. While it is possible to read their friendship as just that, the worshipful and physical sides of Lymie and Spud’s relationship are undeniable. Part of Lymie’s routine is watching Spud work out in the college gym, patiently waiting to untie his gloves and unwrap his hands. This is a religious experience for him. They sleep together in their student house, ostensibly to save money and keep warm, but when Spud returns from an absence: ‘Lymie lay back on the wave of happiness and was supported by it. The bed had grown warm all around him. Spud’s breathing deepened and became slower…Lymie, stretched out beside him, wished that it were possible to die, with this fullness in his heart for which there were no words and couldn’t ever be.’
Maxwell’s writing is intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished. His descriptions of the insecurities and obsessions that plague the two young men are funny and pathetic by turns. And while Lymie and Spud are the archetypal Nerd and Jock, their characters never descend into cliché. Spud’s inner life is every bit as rich and complicated as Lymie’s, and part of the tragedy of the book is that as the reader you’re privy to thoughts and feelings you are desperate for them to share with each other. They never do.
The sacrifices Lymie makes in order to make Spud happy, the unquestioning devotion with which he accepts Spuds moods and the unconditional support he gives are revealed to the reader with heart-breaking simplicity. If you have ever been in the grips of an unrequited love, had a crush from afar, or loved and been let down by a friend, this book will make you smile and make you cry. It’s glorious.