Maxwell, William (1997), So Long, See You Tomorrow, Harvill
The gravel pit was about a mile east of town and the size of a small lake, and so deep that boys under the age of sixteen were forbidden by their parents to swim there. I knew it only by hearsay. It had no bottom, people said, and because I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China, I took this to be a literal statement of fact.
This is the first paragraph of William Maxwell’s marvelous novella So Long, See You Tomorrow, published in 1980, in its entirety. I could close the review now with a few notes on plot, and have done with it in time to catch a nap, because much of this great book’s properties can be found, in nuce, in these few lines. Maxwell proves himself to be that rare breed of novelist: truly concise and precise. I tend to say that this or that short book could have been longer at the hands of a different writer, but that does not seem to be the case here. Maxwell does not make it look easy, he makes brevity look necessary. So Long, See You Tomorrow is like a coiled spring, but all the parts are so well calibrated that I left my lecture with the impression that it would not work in a more expansive mode. This book needs to be short, and I am unable to conceive of its parts as being part of a longer work. The craftsmanship here is impeccable but Maxwell is more than that. He impresses, but at the same time, he also moves us, leads us into a landscape most of us have never visited, makes us part of a story that revolves around love, adultery and murder, the whole nine yards, so to say.
But, for now, let us return to the bit I just quoted. In the paragraph that follows, we learn about a sound that “sounded like a pistol shot”, or “a car backfiring”, but no, “a farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed”. This is no mystery. We learn quickly who killed Wilson and why, this is not where the suspense arises from. That back story concerns two neighboring farmers, who were close friends, both married. Suddenly, one of the farmers falls in love with his neighbor’s wife and embarks upon an affair with her. This disrupts, as could be expected, both of the families and ultimately leads to the cheated husband’s abandoning his farm and leaving. Later, he returns with a shotgun, hides in his old barn and shoots Wilson first thing in the morning, flees and drowns himself in a river. That seems like a heavy story to hang on such a short book, but, as I said, So Long, See You Tomorrow wears its story lightly, and one of the reasons for that is its use of a distancing frame narrative, so to say. The story is related to us not through one of those involved, but through a boy who lived nearby. His best friend was Cletus Smith, the son of Wilson’s murderer and their friendship is the impetus behind telling that story.
And, indeed, it is, as it is so often, the telling which is important here, at least as much as that which is told and the first paragraph sketches the lines along which this telling will take place. The narrator tells us about information that he has not verified himself, that he knows only from hearsay, from what “people” tell him, it’s quite a strange piece of information, to boot, but he believes it, on the authority of people and because it fits other strange ideas already active in his mind. And we the readers are left with this, like this. Take it or leave it. Clearly, we know that the lake is not literally bottomless, but we have not verified it either; our knowledge of the absurdity of that belief is based on similar factors as the protagonist’s. There are other, similar issues there, but this is what I felt to be the most basic element, and the most helpful in reading the whole book, too, since we, quite explicitly, have to trust hearsay as well; after the protagonist shares details of the murder and the ensuing investigation that ended with the aforementioned suicide, after he tells us about his friendship with Cletus Smith and an awkward meeting in a school hallway, many miles from the village they once lived in, after he explains to us exactly who he is and why he’d doing this, he proceeds to tell us the story of the two neighbors from the beginning.
And he introduces this part of the book by asking us to imagine the landscape, the bare, rough rooms, the simple colors and the rich air that envelops and shapes these characters. Imagination, and belief. The protagonist has not been a witness to the events and he does not deny it, but, he maintains, this is not a problem, per se. He suggests to the skeptical reader:
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.
Yes, he offers the reader the opportunity to dismiss unbelievable parts, but what this means, in the context of such a book, is a commitment to a writing that is not unconvincing, that is less vérité and more vérisimilitude, in other words a writing that creates the impression of being true. In a way, he both draws on and creates what Maurice Halbwachs (in his classic La Mémoire Collective) called “collective memory”. The fabulous Jan Assmann, who developed Halbwachs’ theory further in by now canonical books like Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis, differentiates between “communicative memory”, which is, as the term says, communicated, and “cultural memory”, which is written down or stenciled in, which can be dug out, found, be stumbled upon. So Long, See You Tomorrow’s protagonist draws on both to tell his story, which we know since he is transparent about where he procured his information. For the protagonist, though, cultural memory is restricted to police reports and newspaper accounts of what happened. However, in his role as framer of the story, he creates a piece of “cultural memory”, which is the book at hand, more or less.
At the same time, the narrator is also a reflection of the audience. Much of the story is told to make sense of it for himself and to explain to us his reaction when he meets Cletus in a hallway. Thus, Maxwell created a system that frames the story very strongly, maintaining a fierce grip on connotations and reactions to the story by channeling pre-reading expectations as well as post-reading judgments through the mind of his protagonist. His voice is highly suggestive, but all that does not of course mean that Maxwell’s writing is anything but subtle. These obvious, explicit elements work frequently like a smokescreen, to hide the moving, emotional core of the book behind, a profound sadness that follows the events like the cloud of stale perfume that follows an aging diva on her itineraries through her house. Cletus loses his whole family, his life is completely destroyed and dismantled, he’s dropped into an abyss and what’s more, if the narrator didn’t exist, his plight would at best be a footnote in histories. I’ve mentioned Halbwachs and Assmann, but perhaps the most appropriate reference here is Pierre Nora, who differentiates between memory, which is basically the direct memory of the facts as they happened, and history which is basically storytelling. The narrator frequently tries to flit back and forth between these two, drawing on his memory to push people into history who would not normally have found their place in there.
Apart from these two elements, the moving story and the clever narrative, a third element should be mentioned that is just as important as these two and explains why So Long, See You Tomorrow is such a satisfying, gratifying even, read. It’s the book’s ideas. This is, after all, a novel(la) of ideas. There are two that I found particularly interesting. The first is about the economic aspect of the events. In one of the book’s most inspired sections, the narrator discusses the “Emotion of Ownership” or rather the lack of it. The problem’s this: none of these farmers owns these farms, they all merely tenants there. They own nothing, not even, as we realize towards the end, the family dog belongs to them. When they leave the farm they leash the dog to a stake in the yard for the next tenant to use. The actual owners are not big corporations or kulaks but elderly, reasonably wealthy widows and colonels, people who are friends with their tenants, visiting them now and then, taking an interest in their lives. The tenants are poor but Maxwell’s point isn’t social realism of the Tobacco Road or Grapes of Wrath variety. They are poor but not destitute. They manage, every day. Yet they lack the ‘emotion of ownership’, they are alienated. They just produce, they don’t have anything, really, emotionally, to do with the finished product. It is, perhaps, this which drives the characters to behave as they do. When Cletus’ father loses his wife, he breaks down, because all that remains, for him, is the farm and it’s not his, so when his wife deserts him, he is completely and utterly alone, deserted, without any resources that would make his fate bearable. He is pushed away from society, outside of it, and what is it he does? Enforce one of the oldest moral codes of that society of his, with an Old Testamental glint of revenge in his eye
And here’s where the second concern comes up. So Long, See You Tomorrow contains concepts of sin and virtue and certain tensions between the Old Testament tradition and the tradition of the New Testament, which is often read as more humane, forgiving, although this depends upon the reader, of course. Preachers of hate, such as Billy Graham, would, I suspect, disagree, but many people find a light and a solace in the New Testament that is more bearable than the harsh glare if the old. Wilson is a nice guy, no, more than that, he is selfless, ready to help at the drop of a dime, most of the people in his town owe him thanks for help and support tendered. He is friendly and open, and Mr. Smith is lucky and happy to have him as a neighbor. Until, that is, Wilson falls for Smith’s wife. He literally covets his neighbor’s wife, and the punishment befits the offense, in a way. An eye for an eye. Wilson destroyed Smith’s life and Smith takes Wilson’s. The goodness of Wilson wafts away in the wind. We know of it, but in the chain of events it’s of no consequence. It’s as if that part of morals is like surface varnish, and the other is the ugly, darkly beautiful underbelly of morals. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. You take my wife I take your life. It is a testament (no pun intended) to the excellence of Maxwell’s writing, though, that these elements do not take over the book, which is sad but not dark. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a perfectly balanced novella that is, after all, about two friendship, both doomed, and about the arid air that settles, in the end, over the landscape. We are all only tenants of the landscape we inhibit and Maxwell is an accomplished chronicler of the transient nature of our tenancy, and the nature of our sins. This is a moving, smart, and extremely well written book. Recommended to every- and anyone.
(I have read the book two weeks ago. My memory is really awful. I apologize for all and any misrepresentations of this wonderful book.)