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'We Should Not Be Friends' offers a rare view of male friendship

Knopf

Literary editor Will Schwalbe is best known for The End of Your Life Book Club, in which he wrote about reading and discussing with his dying mother some of the books that had the greatest impact on their lives. In We Should Not Be Friends, he turns his attention to an unlikely friendship that has also affected him profoundly.

We Should Not Be Friends offers a rare view of male friendship, which has received far less attention than platonic closeness between women. (One recent exception is The Summer Friend, by Charles McGrath, another longtime editor.) Schwalbe's new book is a tale about connecting across divides — which is particularly heartening in our polarized culture.

Schwalbe's relationship with Chris Maxey, a boisterous, blond wrestling champion, got off to a rocky start when they met in 1983. They had both been tapped, along with 13 other classmates, for one of Yale's secret societies, whose mission was to open up its members to people they otherwise might have avoided or missed. (In keeping with its protocols, Schwalbe doesn't name the society, though its traditions are intricately described.)

The idea was to forge connections through mandatory twice weekly dinners and confessional autobiographical presentations called "audits," plus a lot of time spent hanging out together, lubricated by free beer. Schwalbe comments: "What an irony, I thought: a secret society was teaching us to be more tolerant and open-minded."

Schwalbe, who studied classics and classical civilization, was heavily involved in theater, gay rights issues, and volunteering for the AIDS hotline in New York and New Haven. He was mostly friendly with the "out" gays and lesbians on campus, and his antenna for homophobia was acute. He was particularly leery of varsity athletes: "The jocks and I were like planets in different orbits, circling one another but not colliding. I felt that if we did, I would be obliterated."

Of his early days in the society, Schwalbe writes, "It had been a long time since I'd felt so vulnerable and exposed."

With Maxey's help in recalling conversations and events, Schwalbe reconstructs the group's booze- and anxiety-soaked senior year in granular, sometimes excessive detail. Memories include the dismaying moment when, over a game of pool, Maxey unthinkingly yelled a homophobic slur. The remark wasn't directed at Schwalbe but he heard it and, angry and upset, he quickly left the clubhouse. It wasn't until decades later that they finally broached the event, which had nearly obliterated their nascent friendship.

A picture emerges of two white male preppies about to head into the great unknown of the rest of their lives. Maxey, who loves the water and physical adventure, hopes to enlist as a Navy SEAL. Schwalbe, already pointed in a literary direction, opts for time abroad in Hong Kong — where homosexuality is still outlawed and punishable by life in prison.

Endemic prejudice against homosexuality is a recurring theme — and a reminder of how far society has progressed in the acceptance of different sexual preferences, and how far it still has to go. AIDS, new and poorly understood, fed into anti-gay sentiments.

Seasoned editor that he is, Schwalbe knows how to structure a book for maximum effect. Chapters are arranged chronologically, divided into decades. The narrative jumps from graduation to their 10th Yale reunion in 1994 — which finds Maxey already married with three kids and a fourth on the way. Schwalbe, too, is settled — into a good publishing job in New York, where he is living with his boyfriend of 10 years, whom he met in Hong Kong (and eventually marries).

To explain how they got there, Schwalbe circles back to 1986 for a deep dive into Maxey's brutal SEAL training and his job teaching and coaching wrestling at a prestigious New Jersey prep school. It's all part of Maxey's indirect path toward what becomes his life mission — opening the Cape Eleuthera Island School in the Bahamas in order to teach about marine conservation and "inspire young people to believe they can make a difference."

Some information is withheld strategically, deliberately leaving narrative strands dangling, to be tied up later. We have to wait decades to learn why Maxey left the SEALS after six years' service.

"I love seeing what happens to people over time," Schwalbe writes. On one level, that's what this book is about: the long haul. But it's also about the closely observed ups and downs of a frequently uneasy relationship, which required deliberate effort to sustain. Schwalbe, in particular, had to overcome preconceptions, insecurities and an innate wariness in order to open up and trust Maxey, who differed from him in so many ways.

Good friends expand each other's lives. Maxey certainly took Schwalbe out of his comfort zone, especially on physically challenging crack-of-dawn runs, swims and dives during his visits to Eleuthera.

Good friends also share each others troubles, whether financial, marital, work- or health-related. They are there for each other in times of crisis. Schwalbe takes himself to task for his deep-seated undemonstrativeness and his tendency to go AWOL just when his friend needs him.

We Should Not Be Friends succeeds, to a large extent, because Maxey comes across as a great character. He also proves himself to be a warm and devoted friend. This book is Schwalbe's payback, his way of expressing his gratitude by using the tools with which he is most comfortable.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.