I’ve known for some time that there is really no excuse for the fact that I had not read any of William Maxwell’s novels. I own a couple of them, though I borrowed So Long, See You Tomorrow from a co-worker. I knew that Maxwell has a reputation as one of the great masters of mid-to-late twentieth-century fiction, in league with the likes of James Salter, Richard Yates, and others who write about silent, miserable men and the women who might perhaps love them if they weren’t so silent and miserable.
This short novel – only 134 pages – begins with an extramarital affair and subsequent killing in a small Illinois town in the early 20th century. The novel opens on a first-person narrator laying out the details of the killing while also doing everything possible to distance himself from it. “I know it only by hearsay,” the narrator says of a nearby lake that boys say has no bottom. The narrator follows this up with the following odd statement: “I was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere it would come out in China” (3). Two pages later he is more circumspect: “Without thinking I would have said that acts of violence could hardly be expected to flourish in a placed where the houses were not widely separated and never enclosed by a high wall…” (5).
At this moment and throughout the novel, the narrator is highly aware of the ways the world has changed since his childhood. As a young child, he remembers going for drives in his father’s horse and carriage, which his father sold when the narrator was six in order to buy a car. The narrator is also aware of shifts in his family’s lifestyle – moving from a farm into a house in town that is owned by his father’s second wife. Looking back, the narrator recognizes that this move into town – and the accompanying decision to hire tenant farmers instead of doing the farm work themselves – represents a change in demographics, though as a boy he was aware only of the causes and effects of socioeconomic classes, not of the classes themselves.
Figuring out the identity of the narrator is maddening. While the reader never loses touch with the “I” of the first-person narration, it is difficult to grasp who the narrator is at the time that he is telling the story and why he feels he needs to tell the story at all. The novel opens with the bare facts of a murder that took place in the narrator’s community during the narrator’s childhood, and the narrator reflects: “I very much doubt that I would have remembered for more than fifty years the murder of a tenant farmer I never laid eyes on if 1) the murderer hadn’t been the father of someone I knew, and 2) I hadn’t later on done something that I was ashamed of afterward. This memoir – if that’s the right name for it – is a roundabout, futile way of making amends” (6).
Furthermore, the narrator reports that his family experienced more than its fair share of disasters between 1909 and 1919 but that he felt removed from these tragedies because he was so young. His mother died in 1918 after the narrator’s brother was born, and the family hired a housekeeper. The narrator and his older brother were wary of her “counterfeit affection.” His father is “all but undone” by his mother’s death, though he does choose to remarry eventually. The narrator’s younger self was an avid reader with a rich imaginary life, and his sensitivity, alongside his distaste for his father’s eventual new wife, was a source of conflict between them: “We were both creatures of the period. I doubt if the heavy-businessman-father-and-the-oversensitive-artistic-son syndrome exists any more. Fathers have become sympathetic and kiss their grown sons when they feel like it, and who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to” (13). When the adult narrator looks at photos of his young father and stepmother fifty years in the future, he can’t stand the idea that his father was happy but can’t understand why these feelings are still so alive within him. He senses that his own young self is still alive inside him, living out the events of 1909-1919 (which, of course, he is).
Caught up in this nostalgic mood, the narrator searches through old newspapers to refresh his memory of a murder that took place in his community during his childhood. The murderer was Clarence Smith, the father of the narrator’s childhood friend Cletus, and the victim was Lloyd Wilson. Lloyd was having an affair with Clarence’s wife. I won’t summarize the details behind Clarence Smith’s murder of Lloyd Wilson because they are more or less what you would expect: it’s a revenge killing that, of course, leaves the killer even more angry and miserable than he was when his wife’s lover was walking through town in possession of a beating heart. What I’ll focus on instead is the #2 in the quotation above – the fact that the adult narrator connects Lloyd Wilson’s murder with an action of his own that he regrets. Several years after the murder, when his family’s rising socioeconomic status has propelled them to their new house it town, the narrator sees Cletus in the hallway of the town’s high school. Cletus and his father fled the rural community in which the murder took place after the murder of Lloyd Wilson, of course – and, with the rudimentary forensic science of the early 20th century, Clarence Smith is never formally accused of the crime, though he is questioned, harassed, and scorned by the community. When the narrator sees Cletus in school, “it was as if he had risen from the dead. He didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. We just kept on walking until we had passed each other.” This incident is the source of the guilt that provides impetus to this novel. The narrator continues: “Why didn’t I speak to him? I guess because I was so surprised. And because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what was polite under the circumstances. I couldn’t say I’m sorry about the murder and all that, could I? In Greek tragedies, the Chorus never attempts to console the innocent bystander but instead, sticking to broad generalities, grieves over the fate of mankind, whose mistake was to be born in the first place.” This interior conflict feels very authentic to me. In my own life – mostly in childhood but in some cases well into adulthood – I let relationships fade into nothingness because I was confused or embarrassed about the feelings these relationships stirred up in me. When I was only eight, I cut all ties with a friend simply because her family moved out of state and the only thing I could think of to do with my sadness was to pretend it didn’t exist. The now-elderly narrator goes on to say, “If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to. It is not only possible but more than likely that I would also have to explain who I am. And that he would have no recollection of the moment that has troubled me all these years. He lived through things that were a good deal worse. It might turn out that I had made the effort for my sake, not his.”
A couple of years ago I ran into a former classmate at a café. We had not been friends in school, though we attended a small private school for nine years, and everyone knew everyone else fairly well, friendships aside. We chatted for about an hour and then connected on Facebook, and for a couple of months we kept up an intermittent conversation via Facebook messaging about the little slights and remarks and insecurities that we remembered from childhood. When she apologized to me for some long-ago teasing that I remembered but had long stopped resenting, the joy I felt came not from the apology but from the fact that I figured in her memories. I was known and recognized and played a role in the emotional landscape of her childhood. This was astonishing. When the narrator of Maxwell’s novel passes Cletus in the school hallway and recognizes him, this recognition is all that it needed for the narrator to be tormented for the rest of his life. It is a powerful thing, to look at another person and acknowledge that his interior life is as detailed and complex and rich as one’s own. When the narrator references Greek tragedy to explain his memory of seeing Cletus in the hallway, he invites the reader to recall that a key moment in any Greek tragedy is anagnorisis, or “recognition” – a moment when a tragic hero moves instantaneously from ignorance to a terrible kind of wisdom.
One of the most effective (and ironic) elements of this novel is the fact that the emotional weight of the narrator’s failure to acknowledge Cletus in the school hallway bears much more emotional weight than the murder of Lloyd Wilson, which is related in a matter-of-fact, anesthetized way. This is a great example of how the use of point of view can enhance both a novel’s realism and its subjectivity. The murder is abstract in the narrator’s mind because he feels no guilt (or other personal connection) to it; as the first page of the novel states, the narrator felt more emotional weight surrounding the idea of digging a hole to China than he does about the killing of Lloyd Wilson. This is one key reason that this is such a nuanced, well-executed novel. So many novelists would approach this subject matter from multiple points of view – we would learn of the events surrounding the murder from the perspectives of killer and victim, their wives and children, and a wide variety of other people in town. Cletus’ dog, who waits for Cletus after school every day, long after Clarence and Cletus have moved to town, might even get a chance to weigh in on the action. There is certainly a time and a place for novels that incorporate multiple points of view (and I am currently writing not one but two such novels, so please take my critique with a grain of salt), but sometimes I think that each novel is allotted a certain amount of emotional intensity and that shifting between multiple perspectives somehow dilutes that intensity. If everyone gets a chance to bear some of the burden for the conflicts in the novel, than no one single character has to struggle under the burden of carrying all of that weight alone – not in the way the narrator carries that weight in this novel, which could be the topic of a master class in managing point of view.
I will admit that I did not always “enjoy” this novel when I was reading it, especially at the end of the day when I was tired. There were definitely times when I would have been happy if a dwarf had showed up to crossbow his father in the chest – but that is my own philistinism, not a flaw with the novel. This novel requires its reader’s full attention, not because it is difficult but because it is magnificently subtle. I ended up reading large portions of the novel over again as I wrote this review – a luxury I can afford when a novel is only 134 pages long – and appreciated it much more the second time. This novel reminds me of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, which I read at a time when I didn’t have many demands on my time. Both novels employ wonderfully subtle characterization that reveals just how subjective human emotion is, even when it comes up against conflicts that we tend to think are universal: death, coming of age, loss, fear, guilt, and an individual’s own failures of love, generosity, and courage.