Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

I don’t remember how I ended up with this book on my shelf. I must have read a review somewhere about it and put it on my library list and promptly forgotten anything I’d heard about it. (I do that a lot. I have three young children, and my memory is failing me, another reason writing this blog is good for me. It helps me to read intentionally. Also helps to keep my rapidly fading wits about me, for as long as possible.) It is short, a quick read, overall – more of a novella than a novel, really. William Maxwell is highly decorated in the literary world, and So Long, See You Tomorrow is a past winner of the American Book Award. Here’s what I loved about it.

First of all, it’s a very masculine book in terms of characters, but quite feminist in terms of action. Here’s what I mean. It is a novel about a male friendship and subsequent betrayal. All major characters but one (Fern) are male: the narrator, Cletus, Clarence, Lloyd; most of the women are either absent or dead. Fern is possibly (though not definitely; Maxwell is a bit ambiguous on this count) a victim of domestic abuse. But here’s the interesting part. Much of the action of the story is caused by the few women who do populate it: Fern, the adulteress, who participates in and perpetuates the affair; and Lloyd’s wife, who prevents their divorce in order to block his marriage to Fern, and instead simply moves out, leaving him completely helpless. It is an unexpected distribution of power for a novel set in the early twentieth-century in rural America.

Also, So Long is textbook-perfect in terms of what I’ll call “balance,” for lack of a better term. Particularly the very short first chapter, entitled “A Pistol Shot,” that spans only three pages. What is so striking about this chapter (and the entire book, really) is its spareness. Not a word is wasted or superfluous; like a poet, Maxwell chooses each phrase for maximum effect. In just three pages, he introduces the major characters, the setting, the main event or climax of the overall narrative, and, most notably and poignantly, in terms of atmosphere – the outlying community. Then, he ends the chapter with one of the best “hooks” I’ve ever read:

What distinguished the murder of Lloyd Wilson from all the others was a fact so shocking that the Lincoln Courier-Herald hesitated several days before printing it: The murderer had cut off the dead man’s ear with a razor and carried it away with him. In that pre-Freudian era people did not ask themselves what the ear might be a substitution for, but merely shuddered.

Don’t you LOVE it? I think I re-read these two gorgeous sentences about ten times, just for the perfection of them.

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