William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

The story of a murder is framed by the story of a brief friendship between two young boys. One, the narrator, is coping with the recent death of his mother; the other, a farm boy, witnesses his parents and a friend in scenes he neither understands nor wishes to. The narrative goes into his past and explores the events that destroyed the lives of his parents.

William Maxwell seems to be what I call a “writer’s writer”, meaning someone whose reputation is highest among writers. Fellow writers admire him, look up to him, try to imitate him. Yet it seems as if he had done a lot for fellow writers too. John Updike, John Cheever, John O’Hara and Eudora Welty are among them. He is truly a discovery for me, someone who writes books one can enjoy reading and admire the craft at the same time. His prose is accomplished, he writes with beautiful fluidity.

So Long, See You Tomorrow is set in rural Illinois during the early years of the last century. The narrator, an old man by now, was a boy of 10 when his mother died during the influenza epidemic in 1918. He looks back to this point in time in which his life was shattered. It seems he never got over his mother’s early death, nor over all the things that happened afterwards. There is something he regrets, something he wants to atone for and that is tied to another story, the story of a murder. Now an old man, he tries to understand what happened. Why this murder was committed, how it affected the lives involved and led to the worst thing he did in his life, or rather something he didn’t do, a fatal omission.

Trying to look back and reconstruct what has happened also leads to the exploration of memory.

What we, or at any rate what I refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

The book starts with the murder of a farmer on a lonely farm in rural Illinois. He is shot by his best friend who commits suicide after having killed him. From that starting point the book moves to the death of the narrator’s mother and then to his friendship with Cletus Smith, the son of the murderer. The narrator tries to reconstruct what happened. Some things he remembers but knows they are distorted information as their source is gossip. He tries to find newspaper articles of the time, talk to people and where he really cannot find anything, he imagines how things could have been.

The narrator is a very lonely boy when he meets Cletus and the murder becomes part of his life. He has no friends and all the other boys pick on him, as he likes reading and isn’t the sporting kind. He and Cletus, who live in Lincoln by now, meet by chance and form an intense friendship until the murder happens.

A few years later – the narrator’s family has moved to Chicago where he fits in much better – he meets Cletus again. They meet only one single time and that’s when the thing he can never forget, happens.

So Long, See You Tomorrow is a beautiful and melancholic short novel that explores a wide range of themes like memory, the past, isolation, loneliness, friendship, jealousy and violence. The central theme is that of the omission and the following regret. There are so many things left unsaid, things not done or too late in a life, that this core theme will speak to almost all of us. It’s often little things but they resonate for a long time in our lives and we might wish to turn back time and undo what has happened.

Has anyone read William Maxwell? Which one should I read next?