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William Maxwell may be the best American writer you’ve never heard of.
He wouldn’t have cared.
”Why should I let best-seller lists spoil a happy life?” he said.
If most writers said that, you’d raise an eyebrow. But in addition to his writing, William Maxwell (1908-2000) had another, extremely satisfying life — for 40 years, he was the fiction editor of The New Yorker. There he worked with some of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century: John Updike, John Cheever, John O’Hara, J. D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Mary McCarthy and Eudora Welty. ”A lot of nice touches in my stories belong to Bill Maxwell,” Updike said. ”And I’ve taken credit for them all.”
Which was fine with William Maxwell. He was thin and fine-boned and private by nature — a man born to reticence. And he was from Lincoln, Illinois, a small town near Chicago where, in his formative years, it didn’t do to call attention to yourself.
His childhood in Lincoln, meticulously chronicled, is at the heart of his best novel, “So Long, See You Tomorrow.” Published in 1980, it won the American Book Award. It’s a short book — just 135 pages — and all of it is a story. But that’s not to suggest you can race through it, because, with William Maxwell, every word matters. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Every word matters because Maxwell had learned from editing how to pare a story to its essentials; there’s no fat in these pages. Indeed, there’s not a lot of fiction; in Maxwell’s novels, much of the story is literal truth. Here, he deals with the central event of his life, which occurred in 1919, when Maxwell was just 10 — his mother got influenza and died. “After that, there were no more disasters,” he writes. “The worst that could happen had happened, and the shine went out of everything.”
Maxwell balances the story of his family with a second story. A local tenant farmer is killed by the former husband of the woman he loves. The killer is the father of Cletus Smith, one of Maxwell’s playmates. And so Cletus and his family simply…disappear:
[At the end of afternoons of play] we climbed down and said “So long” and “See you tomorrow,” and went our separate ways in the dusk. And one evening this casual parting turned out to be for the last time. We were separated by that pistol shot.
Maxwell has “a hazy half-recollection, which I do not trust, of sitting and staring at Cletus’s empty desk at school.” Then Cletus fades. Maxwell has new fascinations: a one-tube radio set, A Tale of Two Cities, Boy Scouts. And, at fourteen, masturbation: “It was as if I had found a way of singing that did not come from the throat.”
Maxwell’s father remarries and moves his family to Chicago. Then comes the second significant event. It seems impossible — in the hallway of his new school, Maxwell sees Cletus walking toward him:
It was as if he had risen from the dead. He didn’t speak. I didn’t speak. We just kept on walking until we had passed one another…..
A moment. It passes. Most people would let it go. Most people, writing the story of two families, wouldn’t return to it. Not Maxwell. Six decades later, talking about his mother’s death to his psychoanalyst, he tries to say “I couldn’t bear it.” What he actually says: “I can’t bear it.” And, weeping as he has never wept in his life, he rushes out of the doctor’s office and onto the New York sidewalk, condemned to his hypersensitivity — and to a question.
That question is at the core of the book: What do we carry around with us? For William Maxwell, snubbing his friend wasn’t a social moment gone wrong — it was a crime. But what was it for Cletus? Were the events of his childhood searing? Or were they like a dream, “so that instead of being stuck there he could go on and by the grace of God lead his own life, undestroyed by what was not his doing.”
This isn’t a book for everyone; you need a susceptibility to your childhood and the wounds you inflicted then. I remember, for example, when I was six and I found a just-born bird on the lawn. As I approached, it panicked and hurried into the street. The sound of that little bird being crushed by the car tire — it will never leave me. And then there was the time I threw a baseball, hard, and it hit my friend’s bike in the spokes of his rear wheel…
If you’ve got memories like that. — and who doesn’t? — this book will seem achingly familiar. And quietly brilliant.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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