Washington Post Book Club: So Long, See You Tomorrow
June Post Book Club Selection
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2004; 3:00 PM
In the novel "So Long, See You Tomorrow," William Maxwell writes a heartbreaking novel out of an awkward moment about his first day at high school in the 1930s.
Post Book World staff writer Chris Lehmann was online Thursday, May 27 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell.
Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Chris Lehmann: Greetings, The floor is now open for discussion of William Maxwell's novel "So Long, See You Tomorrow." As it happens, this will be my last chat for Book World; this weekend I am moving to New York to assume new duties as features editor for New York magazine. So it seems especially apt that we're discussing a book like Maxwell's, which so movingly addresses leavetakings, the abrupt starts and stops of life, and other displacements.
I didn't read the book.. what's it about?
Chris Lehmann: The best--or at least the most immediately convenient--way to find out about the book is to look at the introduction I wrote last month, available on the Book Club site. But really you should read it--it's quite short and crafted at a level of precision and emotional force that very few novels of much greater length manage to achieve.
Chris: Talk about "literary ache" and "heartbreak." Updike also notes Maxwell's "kindness." I remember the encomia at the time of Maxwell's death--been wanting to get to him. Some observations and questions (Your comments? Thank you) follow:
o Your Reader's Guide touched on much I found most appealing--the physical houses as life's markers, the guilt of missed opportunities (to be kind, to be useful), the haunting memories and nocturnal dreams, the compelling nostalgia....
o How important are night dreams in your own life? To your creativity? Maxwell even gives the dog "thoughts" and "dreams." Even Trixie's life was shattered: "Sometimes she dreamed she was waiting at the mailbox for the boy to come riding up the road..."
o The novel superbly presents the "felt-minus" condition of childhood--where one has so little control. Adler said he decided on psychiatry after he woke up with his dead brother (diphtheria). Maxwell's mother dies, he paces the rooms with his grieved dad...
o Suicides are traumatic in small towns. My dad when I was a little boy helped cut down a popular farmer from a granary joist. Don't you think the infidelity, the homicide/suicide and its cruel extensions (to Clarence, to Cletus, Maxwell...) a great construct?
Chris Lehmann: Hello, Lenexa. A pleasure as always to see your thoughful, sharp questions. My own replies, in order:
1. Thanks. As a child of the midwest and of (far less dramatic) family turmoil, I've found So Long. . . resonates more powerfully with me each time I reread it. It really manages in a very spare setting to elicit a whole world of fraught responses. In addition to the house motif, I also wanted to stress the role of the dog (whom you mention below) as a very risky, but IMHO incredibly successful piece of emotional character-building.
2. Night dreams are very important, vivid resences to me. I've ben having a good deal of them in my present liminal state of switching jobbs and cities, but further discussion of them is probably best saved for a couch and ana analyst. . . You are right, however, to note the qiuet grace that Maxwell uses to endow Trixie the dog with thoughts and dreams alike.
3. Yes, in addition to being a powerful evocation of place, SO Long. . .is also a very moving (albeit laconic) literary mediation on the powerlessness of childhood. Or, for that matter, adulthood--in a forthcoming anthology Norton is publishing on Maxwell's work, Charles Baxter has a very astute essay on how nearly all the tragic conflict in the novel arises out of the inability of all characters to speak direct truths to each other--i.e., i.., not merely that signature eloquent silence that passes between the narrator and Cletus in that Chicago high school, but the inability of Cletus's father Clarence to confront Lloyd Wilson about his affair with Clarence's wife; the inability of Lloyd to confront his wife, etc.
4. Yes, the power of suicide and violent death is greatly agnified in small, tightly knit towns like Maxwell's Lincoln. I think it's quite clear from the novel, and especially from Maxwell recording his adult weeping over his childhood tragedies that this violent death, like the detah of his mother, was something he never recovered from. . .
St. Paul, Minnesota:
Thank you for choosing "So Long, I'll See You Tomorrow" for this month's Washington Post Book Club. I never would have read it otherwise and it is classic novella which expresses so much in so few pages.
William Maxwell writes in this book, "When we talk about the past, we lie with every breath we take." What do you think he meant by that?
Chris Lehmann: Hello St. Paul (my own father's hometown, as it happens)Thanks for writing; I think what Maxwell is saying in that "lie with every breath we take" maxim is that we are both unreliable narrators of our own lives, and--what I take to be the more important point--that we are in a state of more-or-less permanent hostage to our pasts, worrying over their unfathomable nature even as we also prop up our present-day understandings of ourselves with the lie that we somehow mastered our blind earlier selves. At least that was my sense; what was yours?
Silver Spring, Md.:
What other books do you recommend by Maxwell? Is he still alive?
Chris Lehmann: Maxwell died in July 2000. I confess I am not widely read in his other work, though I do remember being much taken with Time Will Darken It. Another well-regarded novel of his, which I haven't read, is The Folded Leaf.
Why did you choose this book for Book Club? When is your next event?
Chris Lehmann: Well, not to be glib, but I chose it because I liked it. Again, if you want to find out more about why I liked it, I'd refer you to my introduction on the site. Being a short-timer, I don't honestly know when the next Book Club event is--summer's generally a down time for the big events--but if you check in at the site later next month, something should be up by then.
Chris Lehmann: All right, it appears my final Book Club chat will also be my shortest one; and since other moving-related obligations are fast pressing down on me, I'll go ahead and sign off. Thanks to my handful of correspondents, and to the Book Club staff--the stalwart Eleanor Hong chief among them. It's been a pleasure.
This is my first exposure to your online bookclub
discussion. Enjoyed your summary and the above
comments. I picked up this book a year ago in the
Pitt. airport and it was the most enjoyable random
book selection I've ever made. It's emotive power is
almost more like poetry than prose.
You mentioned Norton's anthology in your comments
above. Could you suggest some other good
reference sources (books or online) for someone
recently retired from a non-literary career (science/
technical) to get "up to speed" in my ability to
critically analyze fiction? Thanks and good luck in
your new career.
Seem to be a lot of Midwesterners online today; I also
grew up in Minn.
Chris Lehmann: Thanks for writing--it heartens me greatly to hear that you're taking up an interest in fiction, and that you found Maxwell's book at an airport bookshop. In re. other sources, it may well be my humanities bias, but I can't think of a really engaging single reference work on fiction to get people started. I guess my preference would be to direct you to some great critics, and to take notes on what they recommend. Alfred Kazin's On Native Ground is a great way to engage with american literature via the work of a lively, learned and accessible critic. I'd also recommend just about anything by Edmund Wilson (notably Axel's Castle and Classics and Commercials), Mary McCarthy (A Bolt from the Blue is a good posthumous collection), or Cyril Connelly. A good contemporary work of criticism, lively and opinionated and veyr informed is James Wood's new collection of essays, The Irresponsible Self.
Hi, our theology-focused book club featured this last year. It was moving for many of us, several of whom had had parents die at an early, tender age. AS far as my experience goes, the instinct is always to go back and "find" the lost parent and the circumstances around the time of that death, to feel again as a lost child, to wonder if WE did anything wrong, and why the parent left.A big theme in this book is what happens to the innocent (children, dogs) as a result of betrayal and the pain of disruption caused by death or betrayal. I still go back to look at the house where my father died when I was 9; Mr. Maxwell read my (and others') life.
Chris Lehmann: Yes, as I think I noted somewhere above, the bok does a great job at getting inside of characters (and animals!) who are unable to comprhend the suddenly broken condition of their lives, the fragile state of the familes and homes they thought they could take for granted, and the many difficulties of simple (and not so simple) human communication. One does return obsessively, as Maxwell's narrator does, to the scenes where one senses one first became overwhlemed by life's tragic course, and the great achievement of So Long. . is how quietly it traverses this fraught ground, without the narrator even fully understand how the story he's telling is affecting him.
Did you know the author? Some other favorite excerpts:
"Now was the moment 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."
"Anyway, i didn't tell Cletus about my shipwreck...and he didn't tell me about his...toward suppertime, we climbed down and said 'So long' and 'See you tomorrow,'...And one evening this casual parting turned out to be the last time. We were separated by that pistol shot."
Maxwell, now a long-time New Yorker ("New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy."): "When I go home, usually because of a funeral, I always end up walking down Ninth Street. I give way to it as if it was a sexual temptation." And later, "When I dream about Lincoln (the hometown) it is always the way it was in my childhood."
"If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to." (I'm wondering if "Clete Boyer" was the name inspiration.) Thanks again.
Chris Lehmann: I never had the pleasure of knowing Maxwell. But this festschrift Norton is publishing (co-edited by Book World poetry contributor Edward Hirsch, together with Michael Collier and Charles Baxter) gathers personal reminiscences and critical appreciations of Baxter and his work. I very much enjoyed Baxter's eassay on his friendship with maxwell and his view of So Long. . .It publishes in August, so keep your eyes peeled.
(Sigh): Book World, the Book Club, and the fall festival will not be the same. Good luck with the New York magazine. I'm actually one-for-one with a letter to the editor (1999 I believe)--and know when to quit.
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I too am a vivid nocturnal dreamer--can't wait each night to see what turns up. Richter said, "The dream is an involuntary kind of poem."
Anyway, of all the novel's moving writing, I especially liked: "On Christmas Eve...the square was deserted, except for two men standing in front of the drugstore. One of them was a traveling salesman who hated Christmas. The other was Clarence. Though he was looking straight at the big Christmas tree, he didn't know it was there. Or what day it was. Or why the courthouse square was so deserted.
'I thought the world of him,' he said to the traveling salesman, 'till he broke up my home...'"
One sympathizes deeply with Clarence--being cuckolded is no picnic. Ralph Emery in his memoir tells that when his then wife, Skeeter Davis, took up with the guitar player he sat through four quarters of a Vanderbilt-Georgia Tech game and afterward "couldn't recall one play."
Chris Lehmann: Thanks for your kind words; as I said, I'll miss a great deal about Book world and the Book Club, not least your close readings and thoughtful questions. That's a great Ralph Emery/Skeeter Davis anecdote, though I am sorry to hear anything that prompts me to think less of the genius who is Skeeter D. And yes, the Xmas eve scene is a perfect, and amazingly expressive Maxwell vignette. But So Long. . teems with such scenes, from the opening shock of Lloyd Wilson's murder on the desolate winter farmscape to the narrator's reminiscence of his mother's abrupt death and his family's frequent uprootings.
St. Paul, Minnesota:
I was impressed by your "take" of what Maxwell meant by the "we lie with every breath we take statement." I was looking at the more mundane interpretation -- that we can't possibly remember conversations word-for-word so we make them up. And I think that some people enjoy embellishing memories, at least the good storytellers.
I want to get back to the dog. The dog's observations and thoughts are so like what I imagine that a dog might think. It actually broke my heart to read them -- made the story even more sad. I was amazed when I went back and read the book more carefully a second time to read that he had "invented the dog" to better tell Cletus Smith's story. Still, it was pretty daring for Maxwell to change point of view to a dog. What do you think about this technique?
Chris Lehmann: Yes, I think the dog is a risky but very successful addition to the book. One realizes indeed that the dog's condition is not all that different from Cletus's, the narrators, or indeed most of the adult characters in the book--a point that Charles Baxter makes exceptionally well in the William Maxwell festschrift I mentioned above. Baxter writes that the dog and the narrator "both had to love to which they had been so accustomed removed. So, too, with Cletus: what he has loved has been taken away. Clarence smith has been deprived of his wife's love, with the result that 'He had no idea how long his silences were.' . . .Somewhere undernath all this reticence and silence. . something starts to howl, to raise its voice in protest and agony. That 'something' is the dog."
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive