by William Maxwell
When I interviewed David Wroblewski (author, of course, of the best–selling The Story of Edgar Sawtelle) for a program at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, he said that one of his favorite books — a book that had influenced him and his own writing — was William Maxwell’s novella So Long, See You Tomorrow (Vintage, 1996). Maxwell was for many decades a fiction editor of The New Yorker and had, in that capacity, a great influence on the course of American writing in the mid–twentieth century. I recalled reading this novella when it was first published in 1980; but of course now that I knew that Wroblewski was one of its fans, I was eager to reread it and try to understand why he liked it so much. I discovered, upon this second reading, that it was even better than I remembered.
It’s a masterful exploration of how the past weighs on and shapes the present, and how there are some things we do, or that happen to us, that can never be forgotten or forgiven, of one’s self or others. The unnamed narrator — writing from the perspective of an adult looking back some 50 years or so — reconstructs the events surrounding a tragic murder/suicide that took place in 1921 in his central Illinois hometown, when he was 12 years old. The murderer is the father of his friend, Cletus. And a year and a half after the murder, the narrator behaves — in his own eyes — shamefully toward his friend. In trying to understand what led up to the deaths, the narrator is also trying to understand and forgive his own conduct, which was at least partially motivated by the the death of the narrator’s mother three years before and his father’s subsequent remarriage. All of this is presented in prose so lean and precise that it evokes much more than it ever literally says. Like poetry, every word chosen by Maxwell is necessary; it would be impossible to edit down this brilliant novella. A great choice for a book group, especially if you’ve already done The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. You can start off by asking why Wroblewski likes this novella so much — that’s a question that will take the group in many different directions.