Monday, January 17, 2011

Book Review: William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow

Beautiful Darkness

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow,  
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980, 
135 pages, hardback. 

Reviewed by E. Louise Beach

Luminous as a moon shining on the furrows of flat, tilled fields, this novel is filled with shimmering descriptions of people and place.  Short and deeply moving, So Long, See You Tomorrow, possesses a Middle Western soul, situated as it is in rural and small-town Illinois.  It takes place in the early 1920s when “people in Lincoln mostly didn’t lock their doors at night.”  Although the characters appear as creatures of a particular place and period, their story is nevertheless universal, treating of romantic passion, transgression, jealousy, murderous revenge and premature death.  

Actually, two tales intertwine in these pages.  While still a child living in Lincoln, the narrator loses his mother to the raging influenza epidemic of 1918.  He writes: “The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.” This misfortune haunts the entire book like rain drumming on a tin roof. 

The second tragedy takes place in the surrounding farmland of Logan County.  Clarence, a tenant farmer, murders Lloyd, his best friend and neighbor, for having alienated the affections of his wife; then Clarence kills himself with his pistol at the seemingly bottomless gravel pit a mile east of town. 

The subsequent anguish of Cletus, Clarence’s son, intersects and complements that of the narrator.   Having both suffered a great deprivation, these children “had inadvertently walked through a door that [they] shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place [they] hadn’t meant to leave.” The two boys, in other words, have been prematurely forced from the brighter, softer paradise of childhood into the irremediable realities of the adult world.  

Through a mixture of recollection and imagination, the narrator revisits the pervasive theme of loss and bereavement.  Here, home and family, time and childhood, even memories themselves are subject to disintegration and change: “Between the way things used to be and the way they were now was a void that couldn’t be crossed.”    

The narrator himself explains the art of this novel:  “What  . . . I refer to confidently as memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.” Couched in perfect pitch diction and gorgeous imagery, these memories become more than simple cathartic ruminations.  

The characters are compelling, drawn as they are with compassion and empathy.  Through incomparably understated artistry, the author invites his readers to see and understand multiple perspectives and points of view.  We feel the rage and shame of the cuckolded Clarence, the frustration of his wife, the yearning of her lover, the loneliness and confusion of the orphans left behind.  No one is judged; no one is maligned.  All are presented as imperfect human beings caught “on an island in a river of change.” Vulnerable to the harsh cruelties of life, they are one by one destroyed by their own weaknesses and a seemingly inexorable and mindless Fate.

Remarkably, Maxwell’s characters are not limited to human beings, however.  In a striking tour de force, the author has us feel the calamities of this novel through the mind of Trixie, Cletus’ dog.  A sentient and sensitive creature, Trixie comes to symbolize the sadness and defenselessness of all the characters of the interwoven stories.  The dog’s howling stands in for human keening, her suffering and abandonment for human disaffection.  

As might be expected, the tone of this book is elegiac.  However, because the characterization, the description, and the stories themselves ring so viscerally true, the pervasive sadness is rendered beautiful; the profound darkness has been lessened slightly by the author’s cool and dreamlike lamp.  

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