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[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

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” 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. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this review, Matthew. You capture the haunted, haunting quality of Maxwell’s writing so well. Ineffable — yes.

    Ten-year-old William Maxwell almost died along with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois, in the 1918 flu epidemic. After her death, his father sent him to live with relatives in Illinois. He returned to those ten years — that town, those people — over and over again in his writing. Some of his finest work — much of his short fiction and his memoir, Ancestors — comes from that time and place, all that he lost in so brief a time.

    Flannery O’Connor once said, If you have survived childhood, you should have enough information for the rest of your life. She also said (in Wise Blood): In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

  2. I loved this book. I have another one of his on my shelves but I hesitate to pick it up, afraid the experience will be markedly different.

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