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, 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…