When I think of murder in a small farming town, I tend to think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell did remind me of Capote’s famed reportage novel, but it’s a different kind of work…beyond just being a first person novel instead of reportage.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Lee K. Abbott and 6th for Ann Patchett)
After all, we do start out So Long, See You Tomorrow with the murder of a tenant farmer:
In those days—I am talking about the early nineteen-twenties—people in Lincoln mostly didn’t lock their doors at night, and if they did it was against the idea of a burglar. One sometimes read in the evening paper that some man had been arrested for disorderly conduct, but that meant drunkenness. Without thinking I would have said that acts of violence could hardly be expected to flourish in a place where the houses were not widely separated and never enclosed by a high wall and where it would have been hard to do anything out of the way that somebody by one accident or another or from simple curiosity would not happen to see….What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from all the others was a fact so shocking that the Lincoln Courier-Herald hesitated for several days before printing it: The murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear with a razor and carried it away with him. In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered.
But then suddenly, we are in the troubled youth of the narrator. His mother dies of pneumonia. Eventually his father remarries and has a new house built, the old being too filled with memories of the narrator’s mother. The narrator is an intellectual, isolated child. This goes on for a while, and then we learn that unlike In Cold Blood, the identity of the murderer in So Long, See You Tomorrow was known almost immediately.
The narrator plays in the house his father is building and strikes up a friendship with a boy named Cletus who happens by. They play, but they don’t talk much.
The narrator doesn’t know that Cletus is only recently moved to town when Cletus’s mother got divorced. Cletus’s father has lost everything, both his family and his farm directly adjacent to that of Lloyd Wilson. That’s because Lloyd, who was a dear friend of Cletus’s entire family and both Cletus and his father especially, has been having an affair with Cletus’s mother. Cletus goes home from playing in the half-built house with the narrator one night and the narrator doesn’t know that he won’t see Cletus again for a while, and only once more ever at that…because Cletus’s father is about to murder Lloyd in cold blood.
It might sound like I’m telling you a lot here, but the story of the murder and the why behind it isn’t really the story in So Long, See You Tomorrow. The book about the friendship between Cletus and the narrator, what the narrator imagines must have happened to Cletus leading up to it all, and the moment later when he runs into Cletus again in a Chicago school and doesn’t even greet his former friend.
Regret, betrayal, passion, frustrated lives, the spread of violence into innocent connected lives, its all there. Some is fact, but much is speculation. It seems an attempt by the narrator to extend a compassion he was unable to in that Chicago school hallway and could never forgive himself for not extending.
People are often haunted by their pasts, but they can be equally haunted by the past of another…particularly where they’ve failed that other in some way. Boundaries of a tragedy are rarely neatly defined. So Long, See You Tomorrow is stark, but at the same time imaginative. I won’t be adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my all time favorites list anytime soon, but I do recognize that this is some good writing.