Caroline Barron_Author's Reviews > So Long, See You Tomorrow

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
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it was amazing

'So Long, See You Tomorrow' so soon after John Williams’ amazing 'Stoner'? I think I’ve won the jackpot. Don’t ask me to choose, I give both books five deferential, captivated shining stars; all the while asking myself how it’s only now I have discovered these two legendary authors. The books are comparable in their perspective (first person male looking back across their life), voice, the era of their setting (1920s) and the unforgettable language. The key to success it seems is surrounding oneself with learning and incredible writing - Maxwell was a New Yorker editor for forty years and Williams was a Professor of English at Denver University for thirty.

'So Long, See You Tomorrow' is what I thought was a fictional memoir, but having done some reading, I realize it is autobiographical fiction. The kernel from which the book grew, I read in a Paris Review interview with Maxwell, was the intense reaction the 60-year-old author had thinking about ignoring his old friend after a tragedy.

In further consideration of the fiction vs. non-fiction point, our narrator writes of the unreliability of memory: “…memory…is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. . .In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw” (30) - one of the most brilliant lines about writing ever written.

The narrator looks back at the events surrounding a murder by his good friend Cletus’ father when they were thirteen, the narrator’s reaction to it and why it had him, filled with remorse and on the psychologist’s couch years later:
“This memoir – if that’s the right name for it – is a roundabout, futile way of making amends” (5).
The death of the narrator’s mother around the same time provides a personal landscape through which he explores the murder. The two tragedies are eloquently braided together and highlight the chasm between a child’s understanding (or lack thereof) of events and the need to re-understand them as an adult. It turns out Maxwell has mined his mother’s death for a number of his books. I can really identify with this quote from a Paris Review interview:

Paris Review: But to what extent can writing recover what you lose in life?
Maxwell: If you get it all down there’s a serenity that is marvelous.

'So Long, See You Tomorrow' examines the layering of time, generation upon generation. As an old man looking at a photograph of his father as a young man, he recognizes with shock that he is old enough to be his father’s father and that his father has been dead twenty years (18). I read the passage over and over, trying to get at its essence: “…yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness that children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it” (18). I love that Maxwell allowed his narrator to come to no conclusion, it gave him depth and made him more real.

Maxwell has a gift for bringing the complicated feelings of early teenage-hood to life, especially that which is spiked with tragedy. The 13-year-old the narrator doesn’t fit in and is bullied. He is happiest with his nose in a book. Even the family friend he goes to stay with mutters “sissy” under his breath (33). So, when Cletus turns up on the building site of the new family home and “didn’t act as if there was some other boy waiting for him to turn up” they became friends, even if only privately.

The novel examines home as an anchor in a child’s life; how our first home holds the most potent memories, smells, experiences, pieces of furniture, things to touch and run your fingers along: “Take all of this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was? He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead” (129).

John Updike writes: “Maxwell’s voice is one of the wisest in American fiction; it is, as well, one of the kindest” (Loc 14). For example, anyone who has experienced loss as a child will identify with the wrinkle-in-time metaphor he employs after his mother’s death: he writes of accidentally walking through a door between the way things used to be and the way things have become. He writes achingly of wanting to go back through the door. This is not helped by a retouched photograph of his mother that “came between me and the face I remembered” until he could no longer remember her “except in a general way” but “I could still remember the sound of her voice” (12). It is quite an epiphany when you discover someone (even if it’s a character) feels exactly the same way as you do about something.

In Chapter V the narrator asks us to engage another metaphor. The reader is asked to turn over various cards, each one a vignette in Cletus’ life: Cletus’ dog greeting him after school; another of his brother Wayne and Aunt Jenny; another of Cletus and his father in the milking shed. We don’t know how much of this is real – how much of it can be? The narrator wasn’t present – and how much of it is the narrator’s obsession with the crime and subsequent reimagining? This is all part of the intriguing analysis of fiction versus non-fiction, or autobiographical fiction versus memoir. I think it makes a better story and doesn’t feel at all false.

The narrator also brings in – riskily - the perspective of Cletus’ dog. The animal is given feelings (often a risky business), but these passages had me in tears. “Awake she wasn’t anybody’s dog” (144). The dog is a vehicle for reflecting Cletus’ feelings of loss and abandonment, or at least the feelings the narrator projects onto Cletus.

In the final chapter we return to the concept of the importance of home. The now-elderly narrator returns ‘home’ for visits and to look at the houses and streets of his childhood (I did the exact same thing recently). This provides the context for a wonderful ending, an examining of the past, and forgiveness:
“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” (152). This is the beginning of the final paragraph which I mustn’t ruin by quoting in full; but it is absolutely incredible.

Ultimately the children in the story lose out. We don’t find out what happened to Cletus. I wish we knew. Or perhaps I’m better off not knowing: “Other children could have borne it, have borne it. My older brother did, somehow. I couldn’t” (148).

Oddly, in the Kindle edition there are a couple of typos e.g. “They are (sic) till they were stuffed”. I’m unsure if this is a direct copy of the original or re-entered text for digital, but future editions of this masterpiece need to be better edited.

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PS: A few more quotes I just had to record:
Looking at a photographer album of his stepmother as a young woman: “What beautiful clothes. What glorious automobiles. What good times” (17).

“On the morning that he was killed he left the barn door open wide so as to catch the morning light when it came. The light from his lantern must have fallen just short of the toe of the murderer’s boot” (36).

“He [Lloyd Wilson] was almost forty years old and lately it had seemed to him that he had lived a long time and that just about everything that could happen to him had happened” (88).

“The murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear off with a razor blade and carried it away with him. In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered” (Loc 139).

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Reading Progress

May 4, 2014 – Shelved
May 7, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
Started Reading
August 17, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Thanks for the recommendation, Caroline. This sounds excellent.

Caroline Barron_Author Kim wrote: "Thanks for the recommendation, Caroline. This sounds excellent."

I saw it go onto your 'to read' list - I think you'll love it!

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