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).
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.