WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship, by Will Schwalbe
Many writers struggle to find their form: the genre in which they feel most free and productive — most themselves. Will Schwalbe once planned to be a playwright. His mentors included Larry Kramer(best known for his autobiographical play “The Normal Heart”) and Robert Chapman (the Harvard professor who helped bring “Billy Budd” to Broadway in 1951).
Schwalbe may have his own “Normal Heart” tucked away in a drawer somewhere. An early AIDS activist, he once labored on a play called “Traitors” about roommates who turn on a young man after he “lets down his guard,” a favored phrase. But — after dabbling in journalism, advancing to top positions in book publishing, starting a cooking website and co-writing a treatise on email etiquette — he seems to have settled with slight unease on the ultimate let-down-your-guard category, memoir, as if trying to get comfy on a convertible sofa.
Schwalbe had a best seller a decade ago with “The End of Your Life Book Club,” which featured the literary works he discussed with his mother when she was dying of pancreatic cancer, following it with a collection of essays on books that had changed his life.
He isn’t a bookworm, he’s a bookaholic, and in his latest memoir, “We Should Not Be Friends,” he seems to be admitting he has a problem. Long before the smartphone became our universal social escape hatch, he’d carry around something between covers, Linus-like, “as a kind of security blanket,” he writes. “One of the best things about books is that they are always there for you; they will forgive you endless amounts of neglect and still be ready to greet you, unchanged.” Unlike, say, people.
“We Should Not Be Friends” traces Schwalbe’s unlikely and occasionally rocky 40-year friendship with Chris Maxey, a former Navy SEAL and founder of the ecologically oriented Island School on Eleuthera in the Bahamas (one of their several points of tension is Schwalbe’s unthinking use of plastic straws). The two men were both recruited for a secret society at Yale in the ’80s, where Maxey was a jock, a bulging-biceped, extroverted wrestler who occasionally hurled homophobic obscenities, and Schwalbe an indoorsy classical civilization major with a perm and a penchant for Prince. When Maxey gives “Schwalbs,” as he nicknames him, a ride on his Yamaha 850 motorcycle, which he calls the Bitch, awkwardness doesn’t just ensue — it spews.
The society, never named but not Skull and Bones, taps 15 rising seniors who have nothing particular in common to dine together twice a week, with an unlimited account at the liquor store and a keg in the basement of their granite meeting hall. (Schwalbe likes drinking, he freely admits, almost as much as he likes books.) Membership will be “the best chapter in your soft, preppy, silver-spoon, privileged life,” a recruiter swears to Maxey. The group bonds, they graduate, pursue their brilliant careers, pair up, procreate (or not), split up and stay sporadically in touch.
One dies young in a terrible accident. Others, including Maxey and Schwalbe, find themselves with bafflement sprawled on the shoals of upper middle age, beset with unsettling diagnoses: neuropathy, bum hips, hearing loss, even brain tumors. What starts out with a slight vibe of “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s sinister novel about a privileged college clique — Schwalbe falls into bed with an angelic-seeming man who keeps a rusty serrated knife on the floor nearby — progresses into something more like Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays With Morrie.” You might call it “Tuesdays With Maxey,” except that Schwalbe goes for long periods without talking to his athletic pal at all.
Reductive though this may sound, “We Should Not Be Friends” is an object lesson in the difference between male and female communication styles. Many times when Schwalbe restrains himself from confiding in or asking something of Maxey — like what terrible thing happened to him when he was stationed in Panama — I found myself wanting to scream: “SAY IT! JUST SAY IT!”
He takes forever to find out the names of Maxey’s four children and balks on writing a check to his nonprofit. Subconsciously wary of seeming as if he’s making a pass, he shrinks at bear hugs or declarations of brotherly love. “I often feel that I would have been far more comfortable in Edwardian England where a nod or bow in someone’s general direction with perhaps a tip of the hat was all that was usually required,” he admits.
The playwright in Schwalbe comes to the fore in his extensive re-creation, with Maxey, of their long-ago dialogues, which are sometimes just monologues with prompts. “When memory failed us both, we did our best to conjure up what we believe we would have said,” he writes in an introduction — a mostly fine tactic, except when the reconstituted Maxey, describing Hell Week in his Basic Underwater Demolition training, comes out with something florid like “The bullhorn shouted relentlessly with the rules of the competition.”(Their letters are long gone but Schwalbe’s old scourge, email, was helpful.)
“We Should Not Be Friends” is a mild but often moving book, watered with a few perhaps inevitable bromides about “sharing” and personal “journeys” — but also salted with Schwalbe’s well-established literary intelligence and a palpable empathy. I don’t know if Schwalbe fully let his guard down, but — swimming with stingrays, learning to breathe deeply — he stepped out of his comfort zone, and for this: applause.
WE SHOULD NOT BE FRIENDS: The Story of a Friendship | By Will Schwalbe | 336 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29