‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ is the second William Maxwell novel that I have read, last year I read ‘They Came like Swallows’ – a beautifully poignant book which Maxwell wrote in the 1930’s. This novel, written when the author was in his seventies comes from the same place of raw grief. However, this novel is a work of far greater genius than that earlier novel (exquisite and well worth reading though it is). ‘So Long, see you Tomorrow’ is a novel written with the wisdom of age and the knowledge that those early griefs never do leave us.
Some novels are difficult to write about adequately. This is one such, it’s a book I am in danger of buying for everyone I know who reads. So my thoughts about this book might be brief – because the story is simple – but what the author achieves with this astonishing novel is hard to put into words. It is a book which will almost certainly feature on my books of the year list.
“One winter morning shortly before daybreak, three men loading gravel there heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring. Within a few seconds it had grown light. No one came to the pit through the field that lay alongside it, and they didn’t see anyone walking on the road. The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.”
The setting is Lincoln, Illinois in the 1920’s– just as in They Came like Swallows, the place where Maxwell grew up. There is definitely an autobiographical feeling to both novels, which draw heavily on the author’s own experience of losing his mother during the flu epidemic of 1918/9. The novel concerns a murder, a suicide, an adulterous relationship, and the loneliness of two boys who come together briefly in the midst of a series of terrible events. When the narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow, meets Cletus Smith, he has already suffered the greatest loss of his young life – the death of his mother. His father, is distant, marrying again, a gentle younger woman who tries in time to build bridges between her step sons and their father. Cletus is lonely, watching the destruction of his parents’ marriage from the side-lines, but things are about to take a violent, shocking turn. (This is no spoiler – we know all that happens within four or five pages).
“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 neighbourhood, 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.”
After that shot which rang out – and the events which followed, the narrator and Cletus don’t meet again – although the narrator is haunted by a glimpse of Cletus eighteen months later – in the corridor of a large Chicago high school where coincidently events have taken both boys. For the rest of his life that damaged young boy carried with him into old age the feeling that he failed Cletus by not continuing their friendship in the wake of the murder. Now more than fifty years after those events, the narrator looks back on the story of Cletus’ father Clarence and his former best friend Lloyd Wilson, while remembering his own difficult adolescence.
In the rural landscape of Illinois two neighbouring tenant farmer, Lloyd Wilson and Clarence Smith became great friends. Lending each other a hand whenever it was needed, they spent years in and out of each other’s homes. In time jealously, adultery and ultimately betrayal took the place of friendship, and one man lies dead in his barn.
The last section of the novel is so moving, tenderly written – (and don’t roll your eyes) told from the point of view of a loyal farm dog left behind in all the fracas. It shouldn’t work – but oh my – it completely did for me.
Aware that I haven’t done this book anything like the justice it deserves, all I can say to those of you who haven’t already read it – is get a copy of this wonderful novel and read it