So Long, See You Tomorrow
By William Maxwell
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Current Publisher: Vintage Books (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Daniel Menaker writes:
It has been gratifying to watch William Maxwell's reputation as an essential American writer and editor grow over the years since his death, in 2000. Gratifying literarily, because his work deserves permanent and high recognition. Gratifying personally, because he was my teacher and, I believe, saved my professional life at The New Yorker.
So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of the shortest of Mr. Maxwell's novels. Told from the viewpoint of an old man who feels guilt about his broken connection to a high-school friend after the friend suffers a terrible trauma, the story is sad, primal, deeply American. The writing is as clear and sharp as grain alcohol. Mr. Maxwell once said that he consciously tried to achieve this clarity by taking an idea or an event or a visual image and putting a layer of words over it that were as "transparent" as possible. And that is the sensation that many readers have had in reading this novel--as if there were no words at all, in a way. Just the story and the stark events and profound feelings it contains, all unmediated, except by a wise and sympathetic sensibility.
Daniel Menaker has been Editor-in-Chief of the Random House Publishing Group since 2003 and is the author of two books of short stories and a novel, The Treatment (Knopf). He was a panelist for the National Book Foundation’s celebration of William Maxwell in July, 2008, a Mad. Sq. Reads event.
Antonya Nelson writes
So Long, See You Tomorrow is more gift than mere book, handed from one person to another -- teacher to student, friend to friend --as a profound gesture of kinship. I've never recommended it to anyone who didn't love it, although I don't recommend it to everyone. It's for the shy, for the faintly wounded, for the person alone but not lonely. The person who loves books, and his or her imaginary friends, more than anything else in the world.
The narrator -- sensitive boy-man, half-orphaned, perennially unhappy, though also a romantic, and certainly good -- writes from a bottomless well of grief and loss and guilt and regret, those relentless cousins of obsessive misery. His solace? A brief encounter with an equally bereft boy, and the unfurling dual storylines that follow, the vivid dramatic one of the imagination, and the fragile no-less significant one of the imaginer.
I don't know how William Maxwell manages to balance those two stories, one plotted like a melodrama, replete with murder and mayhem, and the other a quiet meditation that hinges on the tiniest non-gesture of passing strangers many years in the past. It's a combination that oughtn't work. And yet it does.
Antonya Nelson’s most recent book is Nothing Right (Bloomsbury, 2009), a collection of short stories. She was a National Book Awards fiction judge in 2003.
Craig Nova writes:
So Long, See You Tomorrow is a profound book and yet the method by which it is so good is nearly invisible. This invisibility of technique, if you can call it that, is surely the mark of a man of enormous talent and wisdom, too, and one who knows how to use both. Of course, when we think of the best American novel of the 20th Century, we naturally turn to The Great Gatsby, but I’d like to say, in all seriousness and without one iota of exaggeration, that So Long, See You Tomorrow is just about as good.
The book seems to be an ordinary tale of a murder in a small town in the early part of the century. It is told from the point of view of a man, now in his sixties, who is looking back on his friendship with the son of a murdered man. Simplicity itself.
So, how does the book have an almost biblical scale? Or how does it seem to address the most profound aspects of being human? I am under the impression that the power comes from the portrayal of ordinary lives in which we see the most intense passions: infidelity, and passionate infidelity, revenge, violence, and in the midst of these things, we see ordinary people trying to carry on and to do the right thing.
This attempt to do the right thing seems to be at the heart of this book. The narrator is troubled by a moment in which he thinks he has failed. He has spent his life giving himself grief over not being able to handle the complex emotional moment when he sees a boy, who was his friend and whose father was murdered. The narrator does not know what to do, and the moment passes. And yet, this moment is charged with all the other events in this book in which the powerful and the profound are so perfectly mingled with the ordinary and with those moments when people are required to act and to do the right thing.
So Long, See You Tomorrow is so perfectly executed, and the tone is so right, that it becomes part of a reader’s interior life, since the book reaches down into the reader’s most private places or those places where all our doubts and fears are so perfectly located. This is not just a novel, but literature. And by that I mean a dramatic and beautiful portrayal of all that is best and worst about human beings.
Craig Nova was a National Book Awards Fiction judge in 2006. His most recent novel is The Good Son (Three Rivers Press, 2006) and his next is forthcoming in 2010.
Christine Schutt writes:
William Maxwell’s mother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 when he was still a boy. He seems never to have recovered from the catastrophe of his mother’s death. Absent mothers figure in his novels, but perhaps nowhere so poignantly as in his intricately constructed, So Long, See You Tomorrow. This slender book is as near to perfect a novel as any writer dare make. (Robert Lowell’s assertion that a great poem must be imperfectly made so as not “to close in on itself” applies to great fiction as well—hence the “near perfect.”) Maxwell’s classic is orphan-stricken, a book of deprivation, of terrible silences and unspoken suffering. Houses and the stuff in them--sofas, chairs, rugs, albums of photographs memorized—disappear, as they would have inevitably, “life being. . . in itself and forever shipwreck.” Of course, there is relief to be had in the orphan novel: the house is found (again) and apology is made. Maxwell apologizes to Cletus Smith for his failure to acknowledge him, a friend, on the one occasion when they passed each other in the hallway of a large high school. But what is to be said to a boy whose father is a murderer and suicide? Maxwell writes, “(I)f I had turned and walked along beside him and not said anything, it might have been the right thing to do.” Maxwell is hard on himself for not knowing then, and for years after, how to respond to Cletus, a boy, like himself, unmoored by irrevocable loss. At the end of the book, Maxwell forgives the adolescent he was and wanders into a wondering if Cletus has repaired himself some and moved on in life “undestroyed by what was not his doing.”
Charles Baxter has written brilliantly on the craft behind undestroyed, and there is craft in every turn of phrase in this novel. William Maxwell seduces us with a genuinely kindly, colloquial—what some call nice—Midwestern manner. He doesn’t so much write as talk to us; he is not inventive but sincere in his melodious arrangement of ordinary terms and images. The murder of so many years ago might by now be something he has “made out of whole cloth.” The title of the novel itself is a casual miracle. So Long, See You Tomorrow. How I love the promise of that title, its sweet, melancholy expectation of ongoing time together, a promise overturned in an instant.
William Maxwell’s mother died. “After that, there were no more disasters. The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.” I love this book, and I love its maker who feels so much for his mother, but how could he have been, can he be, so certain the worst has happened?
Christine Schutt was a National Book Award Finalist in 2004 for Florida, a novel. Her most recent novel, All Souls (Harcourt), was a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Fiction (Paperback) Finalists that Year:
- E.L. Doctorow for Loon Lake
- Shirley Hazzard for The Transit of Venus
- Walker Percy for The Second Coming
- Anne Tyler for Morgan's Passing
Fiction Judges that Year: Not available
The Year in Literature:
- Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
- Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
William Maxwell wrote six novels, dozens of stories and essays, and a memoir, but he was perhaps best known as the fiction editor of The New Yorker for forty years (1936-1975). It was through this job that he met and cultivated relationships with other National Book Award-winning writers, such as John Updike, John Cheever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Eudora Welty. Welty once wrote of Maxwell: “For fiction writers, he was the headquarters.”
- VIDEO from The National Book Awards presents
The Wisest, Kindest Voice:
A Celebration of the Work and Life of William Maxwell
- William Maxwell's Wikipedia Entry
- AUDIO: William Maxwell, the 'Wisest, Kindest' Writer
Fresh Air from WHYY
January 25, 2008
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