Review of ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ by William Maxwell

In Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel The Waves, the wistful Bernard reflects “I have lost friends, some by death [...] others through sheer inability to cross the street.”
The manner in which friendships meet their end, from the profound to the questionable, is a paradox that echoes through So Long, See You Tomorrow and helps propel the book into the moving work of fiction that it is.
Two friendships occupy the heart of Maxwell’s novel, and they contrast in virtually every detail. The first is in fact hardly a friendship at all. The book’s narrator, looking back from the perch of old age, recalls a single summer playing on the scaffolding of a building site where he makes the brief acquaintance of another boy, Cletus Smith. They spend a few simple hours together, and only scant details about the encounter remain: “I seem to remember his smile, and that he had large hands and feet for a boy of thirteen.”
Despite it’s brevity the friendship comes to dominate the thoughts of the aging narrator, since a deeper connection unites the two boys, that of having to come to terms with the loss a parent at a young age. For the narrator, this understanding can only occur in retrospect – “There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self” – and begins with his recollections over the early death of his mother. Changes in the family situation are soon afoot, with a new stepmother to get used to, and later, the family’s upheaval to Chicago.
Details of the second friendship occupy much of the second half of the novel, and describe the story of two local tenant farmers, one who dies at the hands of the other, with whose wife he has been having an affair. The jilted husband is the father of Cletus Smith; he later commits his own life to barrel of a gun, thus leaving a second child parentless.
The structure of the story is serpentine, slipping back and forth in time, and side to side between characters. Maxwell employs a paired-down prose that is direct yet not unyielding. Upon moving into a new home, the boy narrator finds it “too new to be comfortable. It was like having to spend a lot of time with a person you didn’t know very well.” On his bedroom wall he pins a map of North America “[...] with coloured pins for all the radio stations I had picked up. The pin that gave me the most pleasure was stuck in Havana, Cuba.”
On the surface, there are some issues with the structure. The first half of the novel, told from the point of view of the narrator, offers an explicitly partial view of the world. In the assembling of the facts of the murder trial he seeks out old newspaper clippings, realising “[...] I didn’t need to remain in total ignorance about something that interested me so deeply.” Yet as the book develops, the central voice is granted much greater omniscience, so that the domestic, familial and even private interiors of all the other main characters are obtainable for description. As the door to others’ private thoughts is opened further, the novel is able to map out the visceral territory that prefigures the murder of the tenant farmer in all its emotional detail, thereby leaving behind the personal perspective of the boy narrator.
What emerges in the later stages is a patchwork of perceptions that are subtly drawn, each character expressing loneliness or a sense of distortion at the challenges they come to face. In this way the reader is allowed to amass a series of viewpoints, ever widening to the personal circumstances of all those directly or indirectly affected by the events of the affair and consequent murder.
The shift of narrative perspective is a function of the narrator’s imaginings, his way of exploring the predicament of the boy he never knew. In this way, the narrator makes atonement for the guilt that he comes to feel after one day, following his move to Chicago, he is surprised to see Cletus Smith walking along the hallway of the big city school, so much so that he fails to utter a word to him. The issue of the shifting perspective is rendered unproblematic when read as an elusive reliquary of fictional memories.
Maxwell stresses the tangible momentum of relationships; how they move irresistibly along upward and downward curves. There are no grotesque caricatures of malice – every personality occupies a landscape of comprehensible desires, so that even in their wrongdoing they are nuanced and sympathetically rendered.
In interviews Maxwell declared the influence of Virginia Woolf on his development as a writer. In So Long, See You Tomorrow the narrative perspective splinters into a refracted series of episodes that recalls Woolf’s stylistic inventiveness. The reconstruction of this “fragile house of matchsticks” superbly describes the very blurred distinction between interior imaginings and exterior realities.