William Maxwell won the American Book Award, now the National Book Award, in 1982 for his novel So Long, See You Tomorrow. The story is narrated by a man late in his life looking back to a brief childhood friendship in Lincoln, Illinois, in the 1920s. He and another 13-year-old boy named Cletus Smith play together on the scaffolding of a half-finished house being built by the narrator’s father and his new, second wife. Both boys — the narrator is the son of a middle-class family in town and Cletus is the son of a tenant farmer — carry burdens of family sadness not spoken of to each other. Their friendship abruptly ends when Cletus’s father shoots and kills a family friend who’s having an affair with Cletus’s mother.
“Anyway, I didn’t tell Cletus about my shipwreck, as we sat looking down on the neighborhood, and he didn’t tell me about his. When the look of the sky informed us that it was getting along toward suppertime, 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.”
I have no reason to write about this novel other than fondly remembering it, an old book I read in the past that’s sitting on my desk on the cusp of a new year. Signed by Maxwell in January of 1980, the inscription says, “For Ruth from Bill Maxwell with his love.” This powerful fictional story reads like a memoir, written with a personal, nostalgic voice of a man desiring to make amends with his friend for a small act of disregard deeply regretted through a lifetime. Maxwell captures perfectly the emotion involved with painful regret in a mere 135 pages.
I’ll just leave it at that. So long, see you next year.