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?

John O’Hara: Appointment in Samarra (1933) The Social and Psychological Downfall of an Alcoholic

Appointment in Samarra is a fast-paced, blackly comic depiction of the rapid decline and fall of Julian English. English is part of the social elite of his 1930s American hometown but from the moment he impetuously throws a cocktail in the face of one of his powerful business associates his life begins to spiral out of control – taking his loving but troubled marriage with it.
“For all its excellence as a social panorama and a sketch of a marriage, it is as a picture of a man destroyed by drink and pride that Appointment in Samarra lives frighteningly in the mind” John Updike

Isn’t it wonderful when you read a book at the exact right time? I started Appointment in Samarra on Christmas Eve, not knowing that the novel started on Christmas Eve or rather, during the early morning hours of Christmas and tells a story, with a few flashbacks, that lasts exactly three days. Three days in which a man starts his descent. The man is Julian English and the reason for his downfall seems to be his throwing a glass of drink, including ice cubes, into the face of a much despised but universally feared man. Of course this is not the real reason for Julian’s fall into the social and psychological abyss, it is just the tipping point, the one crucial moment that pushes him over the edge. The real reason is his heavy drinking and, due to this, the end of his marriage to Caroline, a woman he still loves and desires as much as when he met her. On an even deeper level, there is also something happening that the French writer Cocteau termed “La machine infernale”. And exactly this is what the title alludes to. Appointment in Samarra refers to a short piece taken from Somerset Maugham titled Death speaks that opens the novel. Death speaks alludes to the inevitability of destiny. Once the machine is set in motion, there is no stopping it. Once your fate has been decided you cannot change it.

Apart from following Julian’s descent Appointment in Samarra offers an incredibly interesting analysis of a highly ritualized society during the Great Depression and Prohibition era. Julian and Caroline English are part of the high-society of the small town, Gibbsville. They follow the rules of club life and parties very closely until Julian throws his drink into Harry’s face. From this moment on, he is an outcast. But what is so terrible in what he did? It seems to lay bare the undercurrent of hate and contempt beyond this façade of politeness and good manners. And what’s worst, he doesn’t really give a damn. Breaching the rules of society sets something free in Julian as well. He doesn’t keep up a front anymore. He had problems with alcohol before but now they get unbridled. He drinks and drinks and drinks, hurts people’s feelings and still doesn’t care until he cannot stop anymore.

Appointment in Samarra was criticized when it came out as it is a very outspoken novel. Sexuality is a central theme and even women show interest in it. At the same time it illustrates what society expects from its members, especially its female members. Virginity is an important topic and the fact whether or not a girl is a virgin is of greatest importance. There are two flashback parts in the novel. One shows Caroline just before she gets married to Julian and is an interesting and careful analysis of women’s role in this society. The second flashback focuses on Julian’s childhood and his complicated relationship with his father a very incapable surgeon. It also mentions Julian’s grandfather who committed suicide and was, as Julian’s father states, a liar like Julian himself.

One of the most impressive features of this book is how O’Hara handles point of view. It is very diverse and original but not experimental. The second thing that struck me is his use of dialogue. Some of the dialogues are among the best I have ever read. These people sound like real people, also the drunken Julian is incredibly well rendered.

Apparently O’Hara has in parts told his own story. He just got divorced, pretty much for the same reasons as Julian. He drank too much. However some of the traits are inverted. O’Hara was an Irish Catholic but in the book Harry, the guy he throws the drink at, is an Irish Catholic. O’Hara’s own father was a doctor and the relationship must have been a conflicting one.

Appointment in Samarra is also a very American novel, one of the most American novels I have ever read and this is not only based on the fact that the Depression and Prohibition are mentioned but in how prominent the role of cars is in this novel. Cadillacs to be precise. Apart from being status symbols, they are treated like rooms. You drive in them, talk in them, quarrel and make love in them. You sit in your car to drink or smoke or just think. And you can end your life in a car as well.

According to John Updike who wrote the foreword to my edition, this seems to have been O’Hara’s first and most accomplished novel. Apparently he wrote some 400 short stories.

I always wanted to read the novel since I saw it mentioned by one of the soldiers in the movie Redacted (which I never finished watching btw.  There are a lot of allusions to the Great War, which would probably also be worth analyzing) and lately saw O’Hara mentioned on Danielle’s blog.

This is definitely a book to reread. I don’t really know if I liked it but I found it fascinating and enjoyed the style a great deal. This is like reading F. Scott Fitzgerald without the varnish. A novel with the feel of a roman noir and the bleakest of endings.