NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.

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