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William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

William Maxwell has come up on my radar three times in the last few months: once on John Self’s review of The Château, once on my blog when Jayne Anne Phillips recommended They Came Like Swallows, and then again in two parts on KevinfromCanada’s blog with reviews of Bright Center of Heaven and They Came Like Swallows.  I had never really looked into him and was shocked to find that he was the fiction editor of The New Yorker for forty substantial and influential years: 1936 – 1975 (imagine!).  The only book I could find in any nearby bookstore was one of his more recent and well loved, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980; National Book Award). 

So-Long,-See-You-Tomorrow

The cover looks quite a lot like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and indeed the book has some similarities.  This one also deals with a murder (introduced early) that shook a small midwestern farm town.  However, So Long, See You Tomorrow is a completely different novel.  Perhaps a good way to introduce its theme is to say this: I thought Ian McEwan’s Atonement to be a masterpiece — I don’t feel quite that way anymore.  (If you haven’t read Atonement but plan to, perhaps now would be a good time to sidle away from this review — there are no spoilers concerning So Long, See You Tomorrow).

As in Atonement, here we have a guilty mind attempting to construct a fictional narrative of the past in order to get some closure:

I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if (1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of somebody I knew, and (2) I hadn’t later on done something I was ashamed of afterward.  This memoir — if that’s the right name for it — is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.

The story begins by telling the bare-bone facts about the murder of a tenant farmer.  We know little else about what happened other than that a tenant farmer went out one morning to milk the cows and was shot.  He was discovered by his son – the children are central to the themes but on the periphery of the narrative.  The narrator was a young child at the time, no more than a handful of years old.  His own life had been in some upheavle because of his mother’s death during childbirth of his younger brother, his father’s subsequent remarriage, and his move into town to a newly constructed house.  The construction of this house is an important motif in the story.  In its description, the narrator introduces his faulty memory and the idea of story building.

I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedroom.  It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience.  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 in the telling.  Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storytelling 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.

During this trying time of his youth, the narrator befriended Cletus, the son of the soon-to-be murderer.  “Befriended” might be the wrong word, though, because really they simply played together, silent to all the trouble going on around them. 

My father represented authority, which meant — to me — that he could not also represent understanding.  And because there was an element of cruelty in my older brother’s teasing (as, of course, there is in all teasing) I didn’t trust him, though I perfectly well could have, about larger matters.  Anyway, I didn’t tell Cletus about my shipwreck, as we sat looking down on the whole neighborhood, and he didn’t tell me about his.  When the look of the sky informed us that it was getting along toward suppertime, we climbed down and said “So long” and “See you tomorrow,” and went our separate ways in the dusk.  And one evening this casual parting turned out to be for the last time.  We were separated by that pistol shot.

The heart of the book is what follows — the narrator’s reconstruction of the years before the murder and what it must have been like in the two households involved, all of this to sooth his mind.  Maxwell’s prose is sparse and beautiful, very different from McEwan’s florid poetic and sometimes beautiful prose.  So silently does the story progress that the moments of violence are audible to the reader and reverberate in the later pages though silence returns.  Another contrast with McEwan is that fact that Maxwell lets you know from the get-go that this is an exercise in metafiction.  McEwan springs it at the end to great effect if you’re in the right mood or to frustrating effect if you feel the novelist just tried to pull a hat trick.  Honestly, after reading this one, I’m leaning more to the hat-trick perspective now.  Despite the foreknowledge, this one is a powerful fiction riddled with guilt and deep childhood pain.

Boys are, from time to time, found hanging from a rafter or killed by a shotgun believed to have gone off accidentally.  The wonder is it happens so seldom.

12 thoughts on “William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow

  1. I increasingly think of McEwan as a tricky writer, to fond of artifice.

    That aside, interesting review Trevor, it sounds a rewarding book. Some parts of the quotes though did jar a little for me. This bit:

    “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 in the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storytelling to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.” and the bit about his father being an authority figure feel a bit like the author simply telling me something, and telling it in a curiously direct and unsubtle way. Whereas by contrast, this:

    “In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”

    Is very good, and makes the longer bit quoted above’s point much more concisely. Is there any issue with overintrusion of authorial voice or am I being a tad harsh?

  2. That should, of course, be “too fond”.

  3. Trevor says:

    Another great question, Max. It seemed to me that the first thirty pages or so have the author/narrator struggling to get the thoughts across. It does fit with the narrative, though, so while I noticed it, it felt fitting in the circumstances to have a narrator writing sentences like that. After page thirty, the writing becomes incredibly fluent, making me believe that the slightly cumbersome sentences at the beginning were on purpose, that the narrator — not Maxwell himself — finally settled down.

    It also felt this way with the structure. Sometimes at the beginning the narrator would move from one subject to another fairly quickly. Again, though, it felt natural in the circumstances and made the elderly man looking back into the past a very believable construct.

    And, indeed, this was a very rewarding book. It is short, too, making the accomplishment that much more impressive to me.

  4. Now that is interesting, I do enjoy it when authors make use of structure in that way. I’m also glad I’ve read your review, as otherwise I might have simply been irritated earlier on, whereas now I know to stick with it and that if I do there’ll be a reward for that.

    Great stuff Trevor, I’ll look out for it.

  5. Deucekindred says:

    An amazing book! What I loved about it was how that one action creates a complete journey into memory and Maxwell is able to keep everything fresh – It reminds me of a movie in where the camera continuously moves. (like Russian Ark or something like that)

    As for McEwan, I like it when he’s creepy and sinister i.e The Cement Garden, Amsterdam and Enduring Love. To be honest i have a love/hate relationship with Atonement. The first part more or less echoes L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, However I found it breathtaking. The war bit screamed BLOCKBUSTER MOVIE PLEASE!!!!! (and Evelyn Waugh has written about the same thing except in a much better way) I found the ending to be clever and ironically I found it to be a form of atonement for that horrendous mid section.

  6. Ouch — reading this review and particularly the comparisons with Atonement are making me regret my resolve to read Maxwell in order (since this is his last novel). On the other hand, it certainly gives me something to look forward to. Like you, I have come to him only recently and find it hard to believe that I took so long to find him.

    Your exchange with Max is interesting and took me back to his first two novels (particularly Bright Center of Heaven) which also have a fair bit of “telling” at the start. My explanation would be that a Maxwell novel is like a literary version of a complicated chess puzzle — he does need to do some “telling” to set up the board but then turns himself and the reader loose to great effect. If you can accept this kind of approach (I quite like it — I feel as though the author is enrolling me as a partner) it does have a significant reward — a short novel can tell a very significant story. And then when you are done and start thinking that Maxwell spent 40 years of his life editing some of the best short story writers of the century, his use of that structure and approach becomes even more intriguing. I think he learned from the writers he worked with how to tell “big” stories without writing “big” books.

  7. Kerry says:

    I have not quite read Maxwell. I almost picked up one on Kevin( of Canada)’s recommendation. I grabbed the Bellow instead and pushed Maxwell down a spot. I feel I am missing the boat. John Self, Kevin, and now you, Trevor, are making me wonder why I had never even really heard of Maxwell before. He is definitely in the queue and will not get bumped again.

    They Came Like Swallows will be first pursuant to Kevin’s recommendation, but now I just have to read So Long, See You Tomorrow because I too thought Atonement was a masterpiece when I first read it. You make it sound like So Long, See You Tomorrow is not only Atonement‘s predecessor, but its superior. If so, it is a must read. (Plus, I loved Capote’s In Cold Blood. One of my favorites, though (because?) it is so incredibly, disturbingly dark.

  8. Kerry says:

    I think what I mean to say, was great review.

  9. Trevor says:

    DK, I love your rundown on Atonement! Thanks for sharing!

    Kevin, I’m glad I got to this one sooner than later, but one good thing about your goal is that it will give you time to forget this review and approach the book on its own terms! I hate feeling responsible for lifting expectations and then seeing them dashed.

    Kerry, I have read only this one, but I think you’ll be glad when you stop pushing Maxwell down a spot! I’m anxious to get to They Came Like Swallows too, and look forward to t what you have to say about it!

  10. I really loved this book. So short and seemingly simple and yet filled with resonant details and even what could be considered experimental touches (I’m thinking of the section where the dog takes over the narration). Nice review Trevor and an interesting comment from Max too. I’m really enjoying the attention Maxwell has received on the lit blogs recently. Up until now it felt like it was only my dad and I who had read him. Do you have plans to read any more of his novels Trevor?

  11. Trevor says:

    I definitely plan to read more of his novels, William. I enjoyed this one as much as I’ve enjoyed anything lately, and I think he and I will get on really well! His style seems to be exactly the type I crave. I too am glad he’s getting more attention on these blogs — hopefully it will carry over.

  12. Leroy Hunter was recommending this to me over at the Guardian, I’d forgotten you’d reviewed it Trevor. With both you and Lee recommending it, I’ll have to put it on the TBR pile.

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