Thursday, August 8, 2013

Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer.

I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book and it was worth the effort.

First published in The New Yorker, So Long, See You Tomorrow by Williams Maxwell is a 70% pulled together and 30% "hazy half-recollection".

Lloyd Wilson, a tenant farmer, is found dead with one of his ears missing (why the ear, we never find out); Clarence Smith, his friend and husband of his mistress, is the definite culprit. Cletus Smith, son of Clarence, takes to wandering somberly in the hallways of the MoMA, stumbles upon a painting - the Palace at 4am - and meets then befriends our narrator. Although both come from different social classes, they are equated by their age and circumstance. Cletus is trembling under his mother's treachery, his father's retreat and the inevitable fragmentation of his family; our narrator is dealing with the death of his mother, his father's remarriage and a new town. Both face the impossibility that comes with the passage of time of ever "getting around to the way things were."

Not long after, Cletus' father suicides, forcing Cletus "over the line into maturity." When the two young boys meet again, our narrator, perhaps due to his never-pitied "physical inadequacy, fear [and] humiliation," fails to reach out to Cletus and allows Cletus - his momentary companion - to slide out of his life.

Yet the past is a metaphysical friend (or foe) to whom we can say "so long, see you tomorrow." This is exactly what our narrator does, for the memory of his ignorance is to him a betrayal as deep as Lloyd Wilson's affair was to Clarence, and follows him his whole life.

Upon his attempt to reconstruct the past, Cletus' first step is to "invent a dog," and this dog trots throughout the recollected past, as Clarence's pet, an observant companion that runs parallel to the boys' lost childhood. In fact, when our narrator cedes his recollection, and when Cletus's childhood is decidedly terminated, the dog is the first to go, put to sleep by chloroform, vanishing into the obscure past like a tarnished memory.

Tenderly recounted in the perspective of an old man yet recollected in the voice of the innocuous child he once was, So Long, See You Tomorrow reveals the vilifying power of betrayal, heartbreaking naivety of a child, and most of all, how a neglected gesture can turn into a lifetime's regret.

“Innocence is defined in dictionaries as freedom from guilt or sin, especially from lack of knowledge; purity of heart; blamelessness; guilelessness; simplicity, etc.”
“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.”
“Who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.”
Best chunk from the novel:
“Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops. His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it. Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.”
“A gentleman doesn't have one set of manners for the house of a poor man and another for the house of someone with an income incomparable to his own.”
“Love, even of the most ardent and soul-destroying kind, is never caught by the lens of the camera.”