Sunday, August 5, 2012

We All Dunnit: Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow

This one's another from the category of Books It Seems I Should Have Heard of by Authors I've Never Read. I saw mention of this book a week or so ago, ordered it from the library, and read it as soon as I'd finished Birch's new novel. Fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years, author of short fiction and novel's, William Maxwell has, till now, evidently slipped below or around my notice. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a short novel (Bless you, Mr. Maxwell!) that reminds me, in its setting, of both Updike's Of the Farm and Capote's In Cold Blood, though the plot takes us more in the direction of Capote. (Did Of the Farm even have a plot? There's a lot of lawn-mowing, I recall.)

The narrator tells us of his boyhood town and a friend (of sorts; Maxwell captures well the uncertainty of a circumstantial male friendship), Cletus, whose father murders another man; this other man had fallen in love with Cletus's mother, and both families had, before the murder, fragmented. Maxwell presents us with the murder immediately, then backs up to give us, for most of the rest of the novel, the context. Our narrator's problem (since a first-person narrator without a problem has no purpose) is that, after his own family moves to Chicago, he passes Cletus in the hall, and struggles to understand whether some gesture was required in recollection of their friendship. It's a subtle issue, but one has to see, I think, the parallels with the other male relationships in the novel: how so much goes unspoken; how men can feel close in a way that's more profound than a man's relationship with his wife; how friendships themselves are built of dependencies we barely understand and are only obviously fragile once they've ended.

Of course, the narrator has no idea what actually went on within the families involved, and he presents several strategies for interpolation and imagination, straining to take in every possible perspective. Late in the novel, Maxwell allows the murderer's dog to become a point of view character. He oversteps the dog's perceptions of things, but, really, the narrator has been overstepping all along. Additionally, the dog becomes an emblem of the once-thriving relationships as well as the children of both families; abused and neglected, she can only wonder at why, for instance, the furniture is on the lawn or the owner is angry again. She moves naturally from the role of witness to the role of victim.

My one complaint about the novel is that, though there aren't a tremendous number of characters, I had a hard time keeping their stories straight. Maxwell provides background on tangential characters (I'm sure he has thematic and mirroring reasons, but they clutter the primary story) and shifts among characters rather frequently late in the novel, weakening the narrative's arc.

Otherwise, it's a carefully rendered portrait of a time and place and how one may feel intimately bound to a time and place despite one's essential incomprehension.

No comments: