So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell


Title: So Long, See You Tomorrow
Author: William Maxwell
Publisher: Vintage Books
Release Date: 1980
Rating: 5/5

Half memories of an older man, half childish imagination, So Long, See You Tomorrow tells the story of two friends and the murder that tears them apart.

“The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.”

In 1921 the narrator, whose young life is very similar to that of the author, is awaiting the construction of the new house he, his brother and father are to live in. His mother has died of the flu and this tragedy permeates the entire narrative. The boy is shy, sensitive and doesn’t have a lot of friends, but every afternoon he plays on the scaffolding of the new house with Cletus, a boy he later on doesn’t remember a whole lot about, he’s not even sure where Cletus lived. One thing he does remember, however, and is still haunted by, is his failure to stay in touch with Cletus after he too experiences a life-shattering tragedy. At suppertime, when the boys are done playing, they tell each other “so long, see you tomorrow.” But one day Cletus stops coming; his father, Clarence, has shot and killed a neighboring farmer, Lloyd, and then committed suicide. And from here on, it becomes difficult to adequately describe this book. In 150 pages, Maxwell paints a breathtaking and excruciating picture of life in rural Illinois, of poverty, sorrow and loveless marriages. But mostly of friendship and regret. Clarence and Lloyd were best friends and neighbors, completely interdependent, until Lloyd falls in love with Clarence’s wife and both families are torn apart.

The narrative of the boy’s grief and regret is intertwined with the story of Clarence and Lloyd (and the utterly heart-breaking tale of Lloyd’s farm dog), and the narrator’s present, looking back on those pivotal events of his childhood. The narrator tells the stories the way he imagines them, using his own experience and sorrow as a guide, and piecing the crime together from newspaper clippings. From different points of view he examines the events leading up to the murder, the friendship and betrayal, the children caught in the middle and the harsh, unhappy lives lead out there in the Midwestern farmland.

The structure of the novel is loose and the language seemingly simple, but don’t let that fool you. In some ways similar to John Williams (Stoner, not film scores), Maxwell manages to touch his reader in a way that many more elaborate writers can only dream of. His words are delicate and tender , often surprising in their ability to convey the vast complexities of human emotion within a very short space. The bleakness, guilt and compassion will pierce your heart, making it impossible not to feel something profound for these poor and broken people. Maxwell’s language touched me in a way that’s almost indescribable and no attempts on my part would do it justice. I’m sure it’ll bring out the same feeling in anyone who knows the feeling of regret and wishing you could change a past action. The guilt of passing by Cletus in a hallway without reaching out to him, and then never seeing him again, obviously still weighs heavily on the narrator’s mind, several decades along. As unbearable as these fates are, the story ends with the small hope that despite all of this Cletus

“could go on and by the grace of God lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing.”

It confounds me how I haven’t heard of this author sooner and I hope he gets a kind of revival the way John Williams has, because he deserves it just as much. You really should read this book, it won’t take you long.

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