Year with Short Novels: The Rooms of the Past
By William Maxwell
Original publication, 1980
In print through Vintage International
This article is part of a series which delves into a different short novel each month, revisiting classics and considering neglected masterpieces. To read the series introduction, “The Sweetness of Short Novels,” click here. To suggest a short novel for inclusion in the series, write to ingridnorton[at]live.com.
Two boys play on the scaffolding of a new house, climbing ladders and balancing above the sawdust and bare two-by-sixes, “teetering like circus acrobats on the high wire.” It is 1921 in a small farm-and-railroad town in Illinois called Lincoln. The half-built house stands in a new subdivision and belongs to one of the boy’s fathers, a widower who is building a new home just after his second wedding. The other boy, Cletus, is a classmate. Playing in the skeletal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Decades on, the boy whose house it was remembers precious little of his playmate:
Whatever I suggested doing we did. I never asked Cletus if there wasn’t something he’d rather be doing, because he was always ready to do what I wanted to do. It occurs to me now that he was not very different from an imaginary playmate. When I was with him, if I said something the boys in the school yard would have jeered at, he let the opportunity pass and went on carefully teetering with one foot in front of the other….
I suppose he must have liked me somewhat or he wouldn’t have been there. And that he was glad for my companionship. He didn’t act as if there was some other boy waiting for him to turn up. He must have understood that I was going to live in this house when it was finished, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder where he lived.
The two boys play together each day until suppertime. One day, Cletus stops coming. His father Clarence has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson. Fifteen days later, deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’ mother had been having an affair with Wilson. As an older man, the narrator of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow cannot stop wondering about the blows of grief, incomprehension, reproach, and violence sustained by his 13-year-old playmate. The project leads him to interrogate his own childhood, especially the death of his mother when he was 10, and to reconstruct the facts of that long-ago world. Mixing empathy and imagination, the narrator imagines the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.
Visceral childhood memories compose the raw material of the book, spun out and excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. A few years later, the two will recognize and then wordlessly pass each other in the halls of a Chicago high school. As an adult, his failure to reach out to Cletus guiltily pursues him.
The narrative follows the form of a labyrinth, circling around and out from the image of the two children suspended in innocent play. When the boys part at dusk, they say “So long” and “See you tomorrow.” The merging of the two phrases echoes the persistent haunting of the past; what is gone recurs, reconfigured endlessly in the mind. The cumulative effect of the novel is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.
William Maxwell is one of the great, understated masters of American letters, a status which owes to a journeyman work ethic and an editor’s self-effacement. A Midwesterner born in 1908 who went east to Harvard in the 1930s, Maxwell worked at The New Yorker between the ages of 28 and 67. It was his habit to go into the office three days a week to edit fiction (that generation of story writers included John Cheever, John Updike, and Eudora Welty). He spent the other four days at home working on his own writing, often heading to the typewriter following his breakfast, still clad in bathrobe and slippers. Maxwell wrote six novels across five decades, three of which arose directly from his childhood experiences in Lincoln. So Long, See You Tomorrow, which won the American Book Award in 1980 when Maxwell was 72 (he died in 2000), was arguably the peak of his long writing life.
To put it mildly, the events in the novel parallel the experience of its creator. The book takes place during the same years Maxwell spent in Lincoln. The death of his mother in the 1918 influenza epidemic features prominently in the story, as does his father’s remarriage, the family’s move out of the old house in town where his mother died to a new one in a subdivision, and a subsequent move to Chicago when Maxwell was 14. In interviews, Maxwell has recounted how he pieced together the story of the murder from genuine newspaper accounts of the period. A few references hint to the narrator’s future as a New York sophisticate.
But to Maxwell, all this would be beside the point. The idea of fiction as an imaginative feat didn’t appeal to him. As he said in an interview about a later story collection,
For me, ‘fiction’ lies not in whether a thing, the thing I am writing about, actually happened, but in the form of the writing . . . a story, which has a shape, a controlled effect, a satisfying conclusion—something that is, or attempts to be, a work of art.
It’s this attitude that underlies the liminal beauty of So Long, See You Tomorrow. The novel’s art inheres in the way it reshapes the past, offering juxtapositions from the shadowy land between experience and recollection.
|Visiting the Museum of Modern Art as an adult in New York City, the narrator finds himself drawn again and again to a famous surrealist sculpture, Alberto Giacometti’s Palace at 4 a.m. The work’s thin wood beams and distilled symbolic figures—a sort of pterodactyl with a monkey wrench for a head flying around the top of the palace, a curved backbone hanging in a cage, a figure of a woman who looks like a chess piece—recall to him the scaffolding where he and Cletus played, taking refuge from the troubles surrounding them. Halfway between something and nothing, the sculpture and scaffolding may in one viewing seem created out of bare space or, from a different vantage point, like a real thing taken apart.|
This is how the novel digests events, by taking them apart and putting them together, moving through the rooms of memory as if there were no walls, no temporal marks to keep them separate. Instead, we are presented with an array of associations and symbols. Later chapters consider the lead-up to the murder from different angles, but the narrator elides the role of his own father. Though the plot involves adultery and a murder-suicide, So Long, See You Tomorrow is not a particularly dramatic novel, just a tragic one. Its art is in its arrangement, in the shuffling and unshuffling of images and the emotions they encode.
Maxwell supports the novel’s loose structure with robust physical details. The house where the boys play stands in a “subdivision so recently laid out that the trees were only five feet tall and had to be staked against the north wind.” In the barber shop where Cletus accompanies his father, the smell of bay rum hangs in the air, and by the mirror “there is a colored poster, framed, of a woman with a pompadour. Her ample bust emerges from a water lily. She is holding an eye dropper elegantly and advocating Murine for the eyes.” At the courthouse square on a Saturday night, the narrator explains that the families of tenant farmers who drove their horse carts in for the evening were “unmistakable” to his boyhood self:
You could see that they were not at ease in town and that they clung together for support. The women’s clothes were not meant to be becoming but wear well, to last them out. The back of the men’s necks was a mahogany color, and deeply wrinkled. Their hands were large and looked swollen or misshapen and sometimes they were short a finger or two.
But the very specificity with which Maxwell animates his setting draws attention to the fact that the world he describes no longer exists. The small-town he describes has vanished along with his past self.
To such bleak circumstances, Maxwell brings a sense of sorrowful compassion. “The reason life is so strange is that so often people have no choice,” the narrator reflects, recalling how, at 12, he delivered love letters via a music teacher while this father and to-be stepmother waited out the appropriate three year period of mourning his mother. The many ways that circumstance, convention, and inertia hamstring people’s choices give the book its odd, deeply-felt tenderness.
In some of the novel’s most affecting passages, Maxwell imagines the love triangle that led to Lloyd Wilson’s murder and Clarence Smith’s subsequent suicide. Each character seems pitiable and tragic, even prior to the violence that destroys them. We are told of a look of sadness in Clarence’s wife Fern, “as if she lives too much in the past or perhaps expects more of life than is reasonable.” Cletus’ affection for his father is simple and heartbreaking; watching Clarence milk the cows, he feels that “he can’t grow up fast enough. When he is grown, there won’t be anything his father can do that he can’t do.” Clarence, too, seems somehow helplessly naïve to his fate, and cannot understand why his marriage is falling apart: “He knew what had been done to him but not what he had done to deserve it.”
It is not so much that their ends are inevitable as that the characters are ignorant of the effects their actions will have. That’s true of Clarence’s mounting, destabilizing jealousy and it’s true of the narrator’s father, unaware that his brusqueness will haunt his son long after he is dead. Ignorance is akin to innocence, and therein lies the key to Maxwell’s near-omniscient grace.
Two boys innocently dangle on beams of wood in a subdivision near a cow pasture, balancing delicately, somehow not falling into the basement and breaking an arm. In the world around them, gunshots and fatal illness threaten, and blind self-interest propel men and women to their ruin. Maxwell does not invest the intersection between innocence and horror with irony or causal necessity. In the moral universe of So Long, See You Tomorrow, the two simply exist, as indissoluble features of the same world. Maxwell knows that the riddles posed by such a cruel, disorganized world are unsolvable. Still, he keeps trying to find words, untangling and retying past deeds. This is a vulnerable novel, which refuses to move on from the events it contains, but cannot answer for them either.
Or rather, doesn’t seek an answer, instead suggesting that creating a narrative from the shards of past “is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.” Breaking the unbearable down into something that can be understood—a story—is the only response to the world short of complete despair. The novel ends with a sort-of prayer for Cletus, the hope that somehow he emerged from whatever he endured able to go on, “undestroyed by what was not his doing.”
Ingrid Norton has written for publications including Dissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Soundcheck Magazine.