Another Kind of Loyalty; William Maxwell’s ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’, by Adrian D’Ambra

Another Kind of Loyalty; William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, by Adrian D’Ambra

Why does William Maxwell’s novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, begin at the gravel pit lake where none of the major action or character development of the novel takes place but from which Clarence Smith’s body will eventually be retrieved?  Why does it begin with a pistol shot, the precise provenance of which is unclear: Lloyd Wilson’s murder, Clarence Smith’s suicide or a car backfiring?  The mysteriousness of these beginnings is deliberate, establishing the mixed tone of earnestness and uncertainty with which the narrator is attempting to reconstruct events as well as introducing one of the novel’s key themes: the questionable reliability of memory and the nature and purposes of truth and storytelling.

The gravel pit lake is said to be bottomless, yielding virtually nothing when dredged.  The elderly male narrator recounting the events from his childhood past of fifty years ago, ‘was very much interested in the idea that if you dug a hole straight down anywhere and kept on digging it would come out in China…’ [3]  His own act of storytelling will quickly become one of borrowing and quoting and then later one of imagination and empathy.  In this process of mixed memory and embroidery he too is digging and dredging and we are reminded of this in the way images and events are returned to and filled out over time.

A powerful example is his description of his father’s being, ‘all but undone by my mother’s death.  In the evening after supper he walked the floor and I walked with him, with my arm around his waist… He would walk from the living room into the front hall, then, turning, past the grandfather’s clock and on  into the library, and from the library into the living room.  Or he would walk from the library into the dining room and then into the living room by another doorway… His eyes were focused on things not in those rooms, and his face was the colour of ashes.’ [8]  Only at the very opposite end of the novel does the narrator return to, ‘that nightly pacing, with my arm around my father’s waist’, and then only at the end of six months of psycho-analysis is he actually able to reveal the missing detail.  ‘From the library into the dining room, where my mother lay in her coffin.  Together we stood looking down at her.’ [131]

Significantly, in this novel of narrative and expiation based on reconstruction of memory and events, the predominant images are of doors, windows and walls, scaffolding and the frame of a house being built.  Similarly, Maxwell’s settings in domestic interiors – the Wilson and Smith farm houses, Aunt Jenny’s, the narrator’s childhood homes – are as exacting and convincing in their detail as his descriptions of the lives and routines conducted under their roofs. These images and settings focus our attention on the relationships within these families and the lives of these parents, children and relatives.

Unwanted change – visited upon the narrator in the death of his mother and the eventual re-marriage of his father – brings with it the feeling, ‘that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.’ [9]  His powerlessness as a child and the expectation of the adults around him that he will follow in the wake of their actions mean that he is supposed, ‘to forget about that door I had walked through without thinking, and about the void that could sometimes be bridged in dreams, and about the way things used to be when my mother was alive.’ [23]

Early in his second marriage, the narrator’s father builds a new home in Park Place.  The boy, now a solitary twelve year old who prefers reading to playing, enjoys visiting the building site.  ‘And I had the agreeable feeling, as I went from one room to the next by walking through the wall instead of a doorway, or looked up and saw blue sky through the rafters, that I had found a way to get around the way things were.’ [25]  One day, looking down through the hole that would soon become a staircase, he sees Cletus Smith and they become friends, neither boy prying into the secrets of the other one’s life.

No sooner are we introduced to the house frame than the narrator emerges from childhood to describe a sculpture he admires as an adult in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Giacometti’s Palace at 4 A.M. followed by a lengthy excerpt from the sculptor’s letter to the painter Matisse about the psycho-sexual origins of the piece.  Maxwell’s description of Palace at 4 A.M. is sufficiently detailed for the reader to grasp the abstract and expressionist nature of the work.  What he doesn’t convey – apart from the words ‘thin ‘ and ‘spare’ – is how fragile the work looks, like a dream fragment or a house of cards that could collapse at any moment.  Instead, the work is intended as a solid point of reference and symbol for the psycho-sexual dramas yet to be played out between the Wilsons and the Smiths, the narrator’s loss of his mother and his, ‘feeling of fear and confusion’ [27] regarding the adult lives around him and the horrific initiation into adulthood yet to be passed through by Cletus.

‘In the Palace at 4 A.M. you walk from one room to the next by going through the walls.  You don’t need to use the doorways.  There is a door, but it is standing open, permanently.  If you were to walk through it and didn’t like what was on the other side you could turn and come back to the place you started from.  What is done can be undone.  It is there that I find Cletus Smith.’ [131-132]

In terms of style and content So Long, See You Tomorrow is clearly divided into two sections.  In the first we have the narrative voice of a sixty year old man remembering himself as a ten year old boy.  However, the re-telling is not strictly linear.  It is clear to us in the way information is delivered that the narrator has returned to and pondered these events many times; ‘a tenant farmer named Lloyd Wilson had just been shot and killed, and what they heard was the gun that killed him.’ [3]  The style of writing is deceptively simple and economical with a fine balance between short sentences and statements and longer ones constructed with numerous ‘ands’.  Instead of being conversational, though, the narrative tone belongs to a voice accustomed to sometimes running through the events and sometimes slowing down to review them.

Maxwell’s most masterly deception is the apparent simplicity of his tale delivered in his narrator’s deliberately meandering and seemingly artless or unliterary approach to his story.  As if unsure where to turn to next, the narrator ranges through a series of sometimes randomly [though, never in fact accidentally] quoted sources: the testimony of witnesses, an historical record which doesn’t even cover the period in question, photographs, in particular a portrait of his mother that has been tampered with beyond recognition, an artist’s letter about another matter entirely and newspaper reports of the murder and subsequent investigations.  What we have in fact is a stepping stone approach to story building that will become more apparent in the second half of the novel as well as a fine portrait of an idea: the interplay between who we are and what we know, between personality and experience, individual memory and shared history.

Alongside this lies one of the greatly understated subtleties of this novel; the story of the narrator’s development of an artistic sensibility.  Far from A Portrait if the Artist as a Young Man, the origins and anguishes of this development are not traced as if through the history and archaeology of a person’s development, as if any particularly special claim is being made for the role or personality of the artist.  Instead, that role is simply assumed as a given, as are the roles of parents and children, farmers, landlords, insurance salesmen, newspaper editors and others in the small rural community.  The second half of the novel brings this theme to fruition in a fine mixture of content and style as the narrator trusts wholly to and relies entirely upon the gifts of his artistic imagination and empathy to reconstruct the lives and relationships of his characters.


Approximately half way through the novel in chapter IV, In the School Corridor, the narrator reveals his moment of shame – his final sighting of and failure to acknowledge Cletus Smith – the act of betrayal which is the basis of Maxwell’s story.  This is also a turning point in the novel’s structure and style.  The narrative voice changes from one that has been almost haphazardly piecing together a jigsaw puzzle of childhood events to one that in the following chapters is consciously attempting, ‘to reconstruct the testimony that he was never called upon to give,’ [56] primarily by reconstructing – with deliberate use of invention – the imagined lives and thoughts of the other characters.  This gift of empathy with rural characters is so profound that Maxwell even risks assembling a certain amount of the information through the perspective of the Smith family farm dog, Trixie.

The narrator attempts to establish truth where it can no longer be established, he attempts reconciliation with his conscience and with Cletus Smith through storytelling, and he openly acknowledges the risks he is taking.  ‘If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing, he has my permission to disregard it.  I would be content to stick to the facts if there were any.’ [56]  The open walls of Giacometti’s fragile sculpture have become the open lives of these characters.

He begins by filling out the shape of Cletus’ days and then by elaborating on the good neighbourly relations between the tenant farmers, Wilson and Smith.  Maxwell achieves a fine blend of realism [the tenant farmers’ social status, back-breaking labour, near subsistence poverty, subservience to the landowners, and the premature ageing and disappointment of their wives] alongside an idealised portrait of the farmers’ mutual dependence upon each other for the common good of their crops and animals.

Into this mixture Maxwell tosses the occasional stepping stone on which the continuing narrative of adultery and murder is built: Jenny Evans’ care, ‘never to take sides between husband and wife'[65], Fern Smith’s, “Fortunately I have witnesses” and Cletus’ awareness of his parents’ marital unhappiness [66], Lloyd Wilson’s dissatisfaction with his wife in particular and with life in general – “A good wife is a woman who is always tired, suffers from backache and headaches, and moves away from her husband in bed because she doesn’t want any more children.” [75]  ‘… that deadness… the feeling that all he had to look forward to was more of the same…’ [78] – his attraction to Fern Smith and the consummation of their desire.  ‘Instinct told him it would end badly… The memory of making love lay like a bandage across the front of his mind…’ [81-83]  This adultery and betrayal seems mostly composed of masculine weakness – ‘He hated himself for being weak, for having no will…’ [77] – and feminine submissiveness – ‘… she neither accepted his kiss nor resisted it.’ [81]

It is one of numerous betrayals throughout the novel: Lloyd Wilson’s betrayal of his wife and his best friend, Fern Smith’s betrayal of her husband, the narrator’s betrayal of Cletus Smith in the school corridor and his perception of his father’s re-marrying as a betrayal of his dead mother.  What counts as loyalty in this world?  Children desperately try to understand and to stand by their parents.  Trixie risks beating and starvation to be re-united with her family.  Clarence Smith’s parents offer him an unquestioning refuge.  Aunt Jenny takes in Fern and Cletus.

But this novel is also about another kind of loyalty, the loyalty aspired to in memory and conscience.  In memories and dreams the narrator remains faithful to his mother.  ‘When I dream about Lincoln it is always the way it was in my childhood… I feel I must somehow give up my present life and go live in that house… I have been brought to a stop there on the sidewalk by the realization that my mother is inside.  If I ring the doorbell, she will come and let me in…’ [130]  In memory and imagination – ‘the one possibility of my making some connection with him’ [56] – he returns to Cletus Smith in an attempt to right the wrong he did him.

These relationships with parents and best friends belong to the world of childhood, a world of imagination in which a row of letterboxes resemble long-legged water birds, but also a world of aching realisations.  ‘Children simply feel what they feel, and I knew I was not the apple of my father’s eye.’ [13]  ‘I felt – physical inadequacy, fear, humiliation, the whole repertoire of the adolescent…’ [29]

Maxwell’s great sympathy comes across as unwavering honesty.  He is true to the lives of children, particularly boys, and he is unashamed in his description of their needs and vulnerabilities, in the first instance in relation to the narrator’s loss of his mother.  ‘Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar… With the help of these and other commonplace objects… I got from one day to the next.’ [9-10]  With Cletus, Maxwell writes about the impact on a boy of family breakdown, divorce and removal from the family home in one of the most sustained and moving passages in the novel.

‘Whether they are part of home or home is part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer.  Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen – the smell of something good in the oven for dinner… Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper…

‘His work clothes are still hanging on the nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on… Nobody sleeps in his bed.  Or reads the broken-backed copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine.  Take that away too, while you are at it.

‘Take away the pitcher and the bowl… Take away the cow barn… Take away the horse barn… Take all this away and what have you done to him?  In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was.  He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.’ [112-113]