The Pequod Review:
William Maxwell’s short book So Long, See You Tomorrow spans fifty years as the narrator (William Maxwell himself) looks back on a terrible tragedy from his childhood. In 1920s rural Illinois, a farmer named Clarence Smith discovered his wife having an affair with a close friend and neighbor (Lloyd Wilson). In response, Clarence murdered Lloyd and then took his own life, a shocking crime that upended the community but had the most lasting impact on Clarence’s young son Cletus.
William Maxwell was friends with Cletus — the two of them played together after school, roaming around abandoned buildings and ending their days by saying “So long” and “See you tomorrow” when they left to go home for dinner. But their friendship was another casualty of Clarence’s crime, as Cletus moved away to live with other family members: “One evening this casual parting turned out to be for the last time. We were separated by that pistol shot.”
A few years later, Maxwell and his family would move to Chicago, where he unexpectedly bumped into Cletus in the hallway of his new high school. Not knowing what to say, Maxwell ignored Cletus and walked past him. This rejection has haunted Maxwell for the last five decades:
If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to. It is not only possible but more than likely that I would also have to explain who I am. And that he would have no recollection of the moment that has troubled me all these years. He lived through things that were a good deal worse. It might turn out that I had made the effort for my sake, not his. I don't know where he is. It isn't at all likely that we will run into each other somewhere or that we would recognize each other if we did. He could even be dead. Except through the intervention of chance, the one possibility of my making some connection with him seems to lie not in the present but in the past — in my trying to reconstruct the testimony that he was never called upon to give. The unsupported word of a witness who was not present except in imagination would not be acceptable in a court of law, but, as it has been demonstrated over and over, the sworn testimony of the witness who was present is not trustworthy either. If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any. The reader will also have to do a certain amount of imagining. He must imagine a deck of cards spread out face down on a table, and then he must turn one over, only it is not the eight of hearts or the jack of diamonds but a perfectly ordinary quarter of an hour out of Cletus's past life….
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.
Maxwell’s enchanting book investigates the details behind the murder/suicide, and it winds across time and place as he considers the histories and perspectives of everyone involved. It’s a simple story at its core, but like great fables or Shakespearean dramas it is profound in its simplicity. It considers free will (and the ways we are impacted by factors outside out control), the nature of friendship, and the impact of childhood trauma. But more than anything the book is about our memories. Here for example Maxwell recalls his half-built childhood home and realizes his memory of it may not be correct:
I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have 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.
From such examples, Maxwell concludes:
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 then 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.
William Maxwell (1908-2000) was most famous for his long history as a fiction editor at The New Yorker, where he worked with John Cheever, Eudora Welty and J.D. Salinger. But Maxwell is at least as good of a writer as all of his peers. Throughout the book, his sentences are carefully constructed with barely a wasted word:
Other people, with nothing at stake, see that there is a look of sadness about her, as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable.
It seemed like a mistake. And mistakes ought to be rectified, only this one couldn't be. Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn't be crossed. I had to find an explanation other than the real one, which was that we were no more immune to misfortune than anybody else, and the idea that kept recurring to me...was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn't have gone through and couldn't get back to the place I hadn't meant to leave. Actually, it was other way round: I hadn't gone anywhere and nothing was changed, so far as the roof over our heads was concerned, it was just that she was in the cemetery.
Love, even of the most ardent and soul-destroying kind, is never caught by the lens of the camera.
So Long, See You Tomorrow is full of so many such moments of wisdom and empathy. Maxwell's story is personal but yet universal, and it leads us to recall our own childhood moments of regret and loss. This is a wondrous novel from start to finish.