Destroyed by what was not his doing

This is my review of So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage Classics) by William Maxwell.

This is not the only novel by William Maxwell to have been born out of an acute, lifelong sense of desolation over the loss of his mother when he was only ten. The opening page hooks the reader with the account of a pistol shot, marking the murder of Illinois tenant farmer Lloyd Wilson. However, it gradually becomes apparent that this is not a murder mystery, but rather a slow-paced, introspective exploration of how people’s lives can be irrevocably damaged by different kinds of loss: on one hand, recalling events as an old man, the narrator describes how he was affected by his mother’s death and his father’s remarriage; on the other, Maxwell provides a moving account of how the narrator’s childhood friend Cletus Smith was devastated by the effects of his mother’s infidelity. Maxwell manages to create sympathy for all the parties involved. For Cletus, the loss of a familiar routine, a sense of purpose as he helped on the farm, the company of his dog, were the most devastating aspects of the tragedy.

The novel’s strengths lie in the author’s ability to express so truthfully and with such deceptive ease how people think, to conjure up vivid visual impressions of the Illinois praires – plus the all-pervading quiet in which small sounds travel long distances – and also to convey a sense of society in rural or small town, conservative, hidebound 1920s America.

The story has an unusual structure, switching between first person recollection, and third person drama containing facts which the narrator could not have known – at some points we even enter into the mind of Cletus Smith’s faithful dog Trixie. Maxwell’s style sometimes seems best suited to short story mode, since he is easily distracted into the thumbnail sketch of a character who then fades out of the story, or into an anecdote which loses sight of any main plot or narrative drive. Perhaps I have missed something, but even the title does not seem to quite fit.

It seems that as fiction editor for the New Yorker, William Maxwell is remembered mainly for nurturing the talent of such major writers as John Updike. Regarded as denied due recognition in his lifetime, Maxwell is now receiving belated praise in a recent revival, often being compared with John Williams, the similarly acclaimed author of “Stoner”, another novel which portrays thought processes and emotions in great detail.

I found this novel absorbing, the kind of writing which needs to be read slowly and more than once to appreciate fully both its technical skill and the ideas conveyed. Yet, although I was struck by the originality of Maxwell’s approach, its focus on bleakness, hints of obsessive self-absorption, and the repetitious hammering home of certain points in a structure which often seems unduly fractured combine to leave me with an ambivalent view of this book.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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