Wednesday, September 11, 2013

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

The audio version of this brief book is prefaced by a lengthy interview with the author. The interview definitely influenced how I interpreted the rather unusual structure of the book because in it, Maxwell indicated that much in the story parallels his own life. Thus, when the book's narrator refers to the frame that he put around the imaginative part of the story as a memoir, I believe that it is indeed a memoir even though the book itself is classified as fiction.

But let me explain. So Long, See You Tomorrow opens with a murder in the small town of Lincoln, Illinois (where William Maxwell spent his early years). It then drops back a few years to describe the early life of the narrator, a dreamy unathletic boy (again, like Maxwell), whose mother dies when he is young (again, like Maxwell--okay, I'll stop now). The narrator's father remarries a perfectly lovely young woman who is kind and loving to her husband's sons, but the boy still feels alienated from his family, missing his mother and sensing that his father does not understand or truly love him. When his father sells their family home and starts building a new home, the narrator hangs out there after school, walking the beams with a boy named Cletus Smith whom he does not know well. They become friends of a sort, hanging out in a setting that can only be their playground for a limited time.

Then the murder occurs--Cletus's father shoots their neighbor Wilson, his former best friend, and then kills himself. Cletus disappears from the narrator's life until the narrator's family moves to Chicago some years later. One day he sees Cletus in the hall at his high school, but they do not acknowledge each other. This occurrence haunts the narrator (okay, sorry, I'm going to do it again--as an identical event disturbed Maxwell) and he decides to try to exorcise the memory by more fully imagining the story of the Smiths  and the Wilsons. The tale he creates is a terribly sad one of women marrying the wrong men, friendship betrayed, children forgotten or used as pawns, financial ruin, and even abuse and neglect of the family dog. While the story holds together as a tragic dissolving of all the bonds that keep a person functioning within society's boundaries, it hardly seems to be an imagining that would help the narrator (or William Maxwell) free himself from the guilt of cutting Cletus in the high school corridor. Perhaps that is the point--there can be no redemption for an unreasonable guilt and one's imagination simply cannot answer the questions that plague you when you do not know what ultimately happens to someone you wronged. My own take is perhaps not what Maxwell had in mind--that the narrator's guilt is not just unreasonable but an exaggeration of his own significance in the larger story of Cletus's life and thus his attempt to assuage that guilt would ultimately fail because it, too, was conceived in egotism.

At any rate, I did feel the purpose behind the structure was not entirely clear, which leads me to an interesting point. In the interview that opened the audio presentation, Maxwell said he thought it was the author's moral obligation not to leave the reader with unanswered questions. Hmmm. I don't feel the same way about unanswered questions, perhaps because the author cannot know what questions we as readers have. If Maxwell thinks he answered all the questions in this book, then I believe he is providing evidence for my point. Furthermore, unanswered questions often cause us to reflect most keenly on what the work means to us.

Another interesting comment that Maxwell made in the interview is that he begins each book with a metaphor, and the characters and story emerge from there and from his life experience.  (He several times uses a metaphor of a tree in explaining his life story to the interviewer.) In So Long, See Your Tomorrow, the central metaphor seems to be the two boys playing on the scaffolding and beams at the half-built house, building a friendship in the air as they play on the incomplete foundation their families have provided to protect them.

Favorite passage:
Whether they are a part of home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen, the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of wash day, of wool drying on the wooden rack, of ashes, of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse, waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until he sat down to supper. Take away the early morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops. . . . Take all this away and what have you done to him. In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was?

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