ALMOST EVERY WRITER surrenders to the temptation to inflate his tale with unearned emotion and significance, to rave a bit and hint at Larger Meanings. Middle-class Americans, unconcerned with the ways in which the specific historical moment has shaped a life, are particularly apt to see themselves or their heroes as Everyman; the urge to eternalize and universalize is the sign of political naivete. That William Maxwell has splendidly resisted this impulse is his chief victory. Seldom has a story been told with more modesty and by a voice so accessible, so educated and so simple. And this is a novel securely situated in its time (the 1920s) and place (a small town in Illinois). This story did not happen to us all; it happened to these people. The very specificity is the source of interest, for surely voyeurism is a keener emotion than narcissism, or at least one more suited to fiction.

In 1918, when Maxwell was 10, his mother died of double pneumonia two days after the birth of his younger brother. With her death his childhood was brought abruptly to an end. His father mourned in silence for a year; as Maxwell puts it, "His sadness was of the kind that is patient and without hope." Every night his father would pace the house and the boy would walk beside him, his arm around his father's waist. Despite this wordless intimacy, father and son were not compatible. The son was a reader and a loner and governed by a child's almost priggish sense of propriety; the father, by contrast, was a man of action, a good dancer, a sociable piano player, a stolid businessman. After a while the family house was sold and their things auctioned off. The father remarried and a new house was built. As Maxwell has written elsewhere, "And so, like any survivor, I began to cherish in my mind the people and scenes of the past. It made a novelist of me."

While the new house was being built, Maxwell enjoyed playing in the half-finished rooms. Indeed, the almost magical ability to float through what would soon be solid doors and walls became a kind of emblem of the freedom of dreams, memory and imaginative literature. On the construction site the young Maxwell meets another boy, Cletus Smith. They play together and ask each other few questions. Unbeknownst to Maxwell, Cletus is silently suffering through a family drama of his own. His parents have divorced each other after a scandalous court hearing. Cletus's mother, Fern, has been having an affair with her married neighbor, Lloyd Wilson, and hopes to marry him if his wife will ever grant him his freedom.

But then Fern's ex-husband Clarence shoots Lloyd and kills himself. Fern and her children leave town and move to Chicago. By chance Maxwell's own father is transferred to Chicago a year and a half later. There, one day, Maxwell sees Cletus -- and fails to speak to him. The memory of his youthful cowardice or cruelty or confusion has haunted Maxwell all these years. So Long, See You Tomorrow is Maxwell's "roundabout, futile way of making amends."

Accordingly, in the second half of the book Maxwell attempts, on the basis of the bare newspaper accounts, to reconstruct the events that led to the murder and suicide that destroyed Cletus' youth. This reconstruction -- this fiction -- is what turns this autobiography into a novel. What unfolds is a tale of inarticulate passion among innocent, middle-aged farming people, a plot related in brief incidents. The story, in the hands of a less honest writer, would have had its lurid confrontations, its smoldering sex scenes, its horrifying climax. Fine stuff, no doubt, but not particularly true to the dour, inexpressive midwestern tenant farmers Maxwell has in mind. His accomlishment is to present a fascinating tragedy enacted by sincere, gentle, reluctant participants -- and to give his account the same integrity that marks their deeds.

The two intertwined stories -- Maxwell's and Cletus' -- throw light on each other. Both boys are forced to give up the happy security of their childhood homes; Maxwell's mother's death parallels Cletus' father's suicide, if only in the devastating effect on each boy. There are other similarities (both boys, for instance, are used to convey covert love messages between adults). But the boys themselves are not much alike. Whereas Maxwell is a bookworm and a sissy from a respectable family, Cletus is a much more ordinary kid from a poorer family, one which is plunged, moreover, into catastrophe and disgrace. The self-control that characterizes the Maxwells ("There was enough self-control in that household for six families") is altogether lacking in the Smiths. Cletus' father beats his wife and, after he shoots his rival, cuts his victims's ear off before drowning himself in a grotesque manner.

In no way do I want to suggest that this novel dwells on politics of any sort. But what I find remarkable and commendable -- and realistic -- is the way in which each character, while remaining an individual, is inscribed in his particular worldly circumstances. Maxwell tells us how much everything cost, who owned what, who worked for whom. The self-control of the Maxwells -- and their son's sensitivity to literature -- we feel are middle-class traits, or at least traits available to these characters. The half-suppressed resentment, and the tendency toward depression and violence are plausible attributes of the tenant farmers. We are sometimes told that politics makes fiction abstract. On the contrary, far from robbing the characters of their specificity, the social facts make them more palpable, more exact. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a beautifully worked example of the demanding art of exactitude. t