Book Review on William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Published by Vintage.
This 135-page novel is unique in many ways. The structure, the voice, and the POV all have very distinctive qualities. John Updike’s quote on the back cover reads, “What a lovely book, utterly unlike any other in shape I have ever read.” And he is not stretching the truth.
This first-person-POV novel is told from the eyes of an old man looking back on an event from his childhood that left a lasting impression. The narrator, who was not a very popular boy, found comfort in his quiet, neighborhood friend until the day he wasn’t there anymore. The boy’s father was suspected of killing his friend who was having an affair with his wife, but before anything could be proven, he took his own life. After this dramatic small-town event, the boy’s mother moved their family to an unknown city.
A year goes by and the boys have no contact. Until, the narrator moves to Chicago and happens to see the boy in the hallway of his new school. This moment, more than any other, is the moment that haunts our narrator and pushes him to write down the story.
It’s not so unusual to read a story narrated by an adult looking back on their childhood. It’s so common in fact that I recently posted a book review on such a novel titled Rainy Lake by Mary Rockcastle. Check it out! The unusual part about this character’s voice is his doubtful and anxious tone. His descriptions are straight forward and emotionally flat, as if he is simply trying to tell us the facts of the story.
A good example of that emotionless writing is the opening chapter, which tells the reader about the murder from a physically distant place. The first characters we meet—who never show up again—appear nameless in the second paragraph and “heard what sounded like a pistol shot. Or, they agreed, it could have been a car backfiring.” After a few casual sentences of description, Maxwell writes, “The sound was not a car backfiring; a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.”
The doubtful narrator lets us know that his memory of the time is vague and sometimes missing important pieces of information. He collects all the information he can on the event through old newspapers but they provide only a generic picture.
Later on in the book, he narrates entire chapters from a third person point of view that he admits has little to no factual claim behind it. These chapters delve deep into the friendship of the murderer and his victim leading up to the event, as well as the affair. I cannot recall ever having read a first person narrative that jumps into a section where the narrator is neither present nor has any solid basis of what happened at the time. It was a very interesting choice.
Besides this part, the novel read very much like a non-fiction book. The fictional character even says at one point, “This memoir—if that’s the right name for it—is a roundabout, futile way of making amends.” And that sentence describes the book more than any I could possible compose.
Point of View
The most memorable part of the POV came late in the story where the POV would slip into a dog’s perspective. After the murder, the victim’s fatherless family leaves the farm but leaves their dog behind. Again, this plays into the narrator’s emotionless, distant voice. Because we are in the dog’s POV, we don’t get a clear view of the family’s sure-to-be-emotional move. We get the facts. They pack up the car, throw a lot of possessions away, lock the dog in the barn and drive away. The dog waits for them to come back and howls and howls when they don’t. The change we see in the once obedient dog when the new owners arrive was the most emotional part of the book for me. It’s worth noting that I felt more emotionally connected to that dog that we only saw for a couple chapters than to the narrator of the story (an effect of the tone used).
Also important to note, is how Maxwell transitioned into this switch from the narrator’s perspective to the dog’s perspective. When he jumps into the fictionalized story of the murder and his victim, he simply tells us what he is going to do and informs us that he has no knowledge to back it up, breaks for a new chapter, and off he goes. Before we jump into the dog’s head full time, Maxwell casually slips in single sentences in the dog’s POV amongst the normal story. These slips in perspective take the jolt out of the complete switch.
Because I feel like I’m always talking about structure in my book reviews lately, I’ll keep this brief. So Long, See You Tomorrow’s structure takes a page from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet by giving away the dramatic event of the story at the very beginning. We are told about the murder of Lloyd Wilson on the first page and know that he was discovered with a bullet in his head by his youngest son who went to fetch him after he was late for breakfast.
Chapter two throws the reader way back in time to the very beginning of the string of events that led to that moment. Like Romeo and Juliet, it is not about the deaths themselves but about the events leading up to it and the emotional impact it has on the survivors.
I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to read a novel unlike any you’ve read before. The uniqueness certainly has its devoted fans (this book has received high praise by many) but the style didn’t strike a chord with me. The writing itself would earn 5 stars, but overall, I have to award it 3 stars.
How I found this book: One of my college professors recommended it.