Tuesday, March 12, 2024

the last book I read

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.

Our un-named narrator is a young boy on the cusp of his teens living with his father and siblings in Lincoln, Illinois, his mother having been a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Her death has had a quietly shattering effect on the family, his father in particular, thrown into having to care for three children on his own while struggling to process his own grief. 

Eventually he starts to emerge back into normal life, re-marries and decides to make a fresh start in a new house, built to his and his new bride's design. Our narrator spends some happy hours playing in the dangerous and half-finished house, climbing on high narrow roof timbers and the like, some of it in the company of Cletus Smith, son of a tenant farmer on a nearby farm. The two boys' tentative and monosyllabic friendship is soon shattered by events outside of their control and understanding.

Cletus' father, Clarence Smith, rents and farms a plot of land next to a similar plot of land rented and farmed by Lloyd Wilson. Both men have wives and children to support, but also strike up a gruff and monosyllabic friendship with an unspoken level of understanding about help being freely available when required, be it with milking cows, gathering harvests, getting a chicken out of a threshing machine, you name it.

All of this goes to shit in a rapidly unravelling spiral when Lloyd falls in love with, and starts an affair with, Clarence's wife, Fern. However discreet you are - and Fern is not especially discreet - it's almost impossible to keep this sort of thing a secret, not in rural Illinois in the 1920s anyway, well before the availability of end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp messaging. Lloyd's wife gets wind of it first and leaves him, taking their daughters with her, and Fern soon spills the beans to Clarence. Given the literal impossibility of two men having a conversation about this kind of stuff, Clarence and Lloyd just start to avoid each other. 

This uneasy truce can't last, especially as Fern and Lloyd are still managing to meet up occasionally in the barn for a speedy and teeth-rattling seeing-to. Fern decides to twist the knife by suing Clarence for divorce, and succeeds in doing so, thanks to some smart lawyering. This results in Clarence having to relinquish the farm and prompts a swift descent into drinking and despair. Things clearly can't get any worse for him, so why not just perform a cathartic act of revenge and then remove yourself from the world?

And so we arrive back at where the novel started, with the sound of a pistol shot in the early hours of the morning, and the subsequent discovery of Lloyd's body by his young son, and of Clarence's body by the police when they drag a local lake. One obvious consequence of all this is a number of youngish children losing a father, and more particularly Cletus being moved away with his mother, who (probably wisely) feels that a completely new start somewhere else would be in order. Other than one random unspoken encounter in a school corridor in Chicago some years later our narrator never sees him again. 

You'll recall I read Maxwell's much earlier novel They Came Like Swallows a few years ago (five, now that I check) - by "much earlier" here I mean much earlier; that book was published in 1937, So Long, See You Tomorrow was published in 1980. It was the sixth and last novel of Maxwell's long but intermittent career - he published short stories as well and had a prolific day job as fiction editor of the New Yorker for nearly forty years. Despite the 43 years of separation the two novels have lots in common, most notably the fact that their narrator appears to be the same person: mother lost to flu in 1918, tick, big brother missing a leg, check, father stricken by grief, yep. Given the close parallels with Maxwell's own life it's not certain to me whether it's meant to be literally the same character (called Bunny Morison in the earlier novel, unnamed in the later one), two separate characters who happen to have been given the same back-story (largely adapted from Maxwell's own), or whether the later novel is an attempt to rewrite and refine the earlier one. This seems unlikely given the differences in the stories they tell - They Came Like Swallows is very claustrophobic and takes place almost entirely in the family home, whereas So Long, See You Tomorrow just uses that stuff as a framing device and most of its narrative takes place on the neighbouring farms. 

My Vintage paperback copy has a foreword by Ann Patchett, whose previous appearance on this list in her own right (Bel Canto was the book) puts this book in a group with Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry, LanarkTrue Grit, Stoner and The Queen's Gambit. It also includes this paragraph:

I think I probably agree that the later book is better, but I very much enjoyed them both and recommend them highly. The contrast with a book like Foucault's Pendulum couldn't be more stark (and their juxtaposition is not a complete coincidence; I often like to follow a long book with a short one) - this is short, completely serious, acutely insightful into how people are and how they behave, and pared of all but the most essential words. 

So Long, See You Tomorrow won the National Book Award in 1982, so you can add that year to the ones listed here

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