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 dies 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 lead 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?

15 thoughts on “William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

    • I’m sure you would like it. You could easily read it in English. I think he isn’t read so much and not well known outside of the States. It is very American due to the setting but the themes are universal. I think Danielle compared him to Wallace Stegner. Another writer I have on my tbr pile who sounds brilliant.
      I loved Maxwell and was thinking the whole time: that’s how I want to write.

      • There’s a kindle version but really, my book pile looks like the Eiffel Tower. I’ll keep it in my wish list.

        Usually, there’s no surprise. Anytime I read a review and think “I’d like to read this book” the French edition is either 10:18 or Babel or Rivages Noir. I was sad when Jean-Claude Zylberstein, the creator of 10:18, died. He made me discover American literature (with Djian) and a lot of good crime fiction. I wonder what 10:18 will become, I found strange that they published The Guernesey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It sounded more Pocket or J’ai Lu than 10:18.

        • My bookpile is officially called K2. A good publisher does have a reliable program. And some have such an excellent choice that you could almost buy anything like the German publisher Diogenes. And yes 10:18 was like that as well. Unfortunately some good publishers are forced go a more commercial way these days.
          The reviews that made me buy The Guernesey book did not describe it as if it was pure entertainment but honestly The Postmistress was more profound.

  1. I LOVE William Maxwell. I think he is just a genius. My favourite is The Chateau, which is one of the few books I will reread. He was editor for one of the big literary papers (I forget which) so he got to know a lot of other writers that way. And the early death of the mother through influenza features a lot in his stories and derives from the loss of his own mother at a young age.

    • He is so accomplished, I was stunned. I’m glad to hear other books are equally good. I had a feeling they would be. I will have to investigate The Chateau, thanks for the recommendation. I read that he was an editor on one of those papers but I didn’t know about the early death of his mother. Her death is very sad, very moving in the book.

  2. Maxwell is one of my favorite authors. He was editor of The New Yorker for decades. Try They Came Like Swallows or one of the short story collections next.

  3. Thanks Caroline: I have this one at home, and while I’ve taken it off of my shelf several times, I’ve yet to actually read it. Thanks for the nudge as it sounds marvellous.

    • You’re welcome. It is marvellous, quite short but it still feels much more like a novel than a novella. I need to read the books that Litlove and Gavin have recommended. They both have topics I’m very interested in.

  4. I read The Folded Leaf and loved it. I bet you can’t go wrong with any of his books. I’d like to read They Came Like Swallows next. I think you can tell by his polished prose that he was an editor–it really shows. I seem to very much like writers who worked on or contributed to The New Yorker. There is a new book of letters coming out between Maxwell and Eudora Welty that I want to read! So glad you liked him! Can I be nosy and ask what the significance of a 10:18 edition is? And yes, do give Wallace Stegner a try as well–another author I want to read more of this year.

    • Oh great, another recommendation, thanks! Yes, it is very polished prose but not too clean. Really loved it.
      10:18 is just an editor with a specific program, not focusing on prize winners like some of the very traditional French editors (e.g. Gallimard). Focusing a lot on translated literature. Letters between Maxwell and Eudora Welty… I am really tempted. That sounds fascinating.

  5. I haven’t heard of him yet, let along read his book. This one sounds promising, I bet it is a heartbreaking story, a friendship between a murderer’s son and the son of the murdered man ought to have ups and downs.

    The one that I wonder the most is why he killed his friend and then killed himself.

    • The murderer and the one he kills are even closer friends than their sons and that is truly heartbreaking. I don’t want to spoil it for other so just a little hint, the killer’s wife plays a central role… I think you get it.

  6. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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