True Fiction by Anna Krauthamer
William Maxwell, born in 1908 in Lincoln, Illinois, was better known as the fiction editor of The New Yorker than he was as a fiction writer. After Maxwell’s death in 2000, John Updike wrote in The New Yorker that Maxwell used “modest specifics, clearly rendered” and subdued “figurative language” to “get at the nearly unbearable heart truth,” or, in other words, to gesture toward the things that are often the most impossible to communicate, with quiet, simple language that is able to make murkiness clear.
Maxwell’s novels are largely autobiographical, third-person narratives about people, places, and experiences he knew, but it’s in the imaginary touches he adds that we might gain more insight into his heart and mind. So Long, See You Tomorrow, one of his later novels, mentions Freud in the first chapter: there's a murder, and the narrator says that in the story's "pre-Freudian era, people did not ask themselves" what it all meant, "but merely shuddered." But now we're in a post-Freudian era, and Maxwell's novels are very much Freudian, not necessarily within their pages but in the books' revelations about their author. Maxwell participated in psychoanalysis for years, and I would assume that, as he delved further into his unconscious, he increasingly expressed his hidden desires and regrets through his writing. You can see this, I think, in the way his imagination works in tandem with his memory: while much of what appears in his novels are closely based on his own life, he adds imaginative touches that tell us things less tangible about Maxwell then, say, the town he grew up in or his father’s job. It’s the most beautifully transparent fiction I’ve ever read.
What Updike called the “nearly unbearable heart truth” usually meant, for Maxwell, the death of his mother when he was ten years old. Before her death, Maxwell grew up with his two parents and his older brother, and described his childhood as a “beautiful, imaginative, protected world.” When his mother died suddenly of Spanish influenza, Maxwell decried that “the worst that could happen had happened” and “the shine went out of everything.” Her death features prominently in his work, most so in They Came Like Swallows, which recreates the perspectives of Maxwell, his older brother, and his father in the time immediately surrounding his mother's death. I read in a biography that during one analytic session, Maxwell cried out that he "can't bear it" about the loss of his mother. Not couldn't, but can't. This blurring of time, in his inability to ever really recover from his loss and distinguish his past from his present, occurs in They Came Like Swallows, too. Maxwell, then a middle-aged man, wrote about his mother's death as his childhood self. He goes back in time to before his mother died, suggesting a fixation with that time period that, whether in his work or in his mind, he cannot escape.
So Long, See You Tomorrow, not just my favorite Maxwell novel but my favorite novel ever, is told in retrospect from the perspective of an older man (a man similar in age to Maxwell when he wrote the book) about his guilt over a moral failing he believes he had made in his youth. In the novel, the Smiths and the Wilsons, neighboring families who live in the farmlands right outside of Lincoln, Illinois, collide into each other only to rip themselves apart later, the implications of which are the most destructive for eleven-year-old Cletus, a son in the Smith family.
The novel is based on real events that happened between two families in Lincoln early in the 20th century; what we read in the novel is Maxwell’s imagining of the private happenings in the families--their thoughts, their feelings, their lives--based on what little he read in newspaper clippings and hearsay. Years after the tragedy took place, the narrator in So Long, See You Tomorrow saw Cletus once more in the hallway of a large public school they both attended. Neither speaks to the other, and the narrator, now much older when he tells us about it, has regretted his silence for the rest of his life. He fears Cletus might have interpreted his silence as disdain over what happened to Cletus’s family, when really, the narrator did not know what to say to a boy his own age who had experienced such trauma.
What makes So Long, See You Tomorrow seem like both memoir and fiction is the way in which it is, at some moments, committed to depicting its characters’ lives as closely as possible to who these people actually were in real life, and at other moments, content to drift into imaginative rumination. The narrator, a stand-in for Maxwell, lost his mother to the Spanish flu, had a distant and grief-stricken father, and would read in the attic for hours trying to not think about the fact that his mother was dead--these are all true about the real Maxwell, too. Everything we experience in So Long, See You Tomorrow that Maxwell also experienced firsthand is as close an account as possible of what things really were like. Significantly, in Maxwell’s preface to So Long, See You Tomorrow, he tells us that in investigating what happened to the two families on whom the story is based, he "permitted" himself to imagine whatever he couldn't find from old newspapers and police records. Hence, Maxwell took the little he knew to be true from the papers and then used his imagination to create intimate pictures of true events. He merged imagination with reality by filling in the blanks on his own--and what he puts in the blanks is revelatory.
Maxwell also says in the preface that after publishing So Long, See You Tomorrow he often “wondered if the boy (now, of course, an elderly man) would read it." Maxwell wondered if he'd hear from the boy. In his present day, Maxwell regretted, decades later, not saying anything to the other boy, on whom the character of Cletus was based, he passed silently in a hallway long ago. Maxwell’s admission in the preface that he thought frequently of the boy confirms that the narrator’s guilt was also his own guilt. Maxwell wrote a novel that imagines the lives of characters based on people whom he only knew indirectly. I wonder if that choice, to immerse himself with reimagining the tragic events that had damaged the real life Cletus, was somehow redemptive, or an effort to assuage his decades-old guilt. Maxwell was afraid that his silence that day in the hallway reflected judgment, fear, or disgust over what had happened to the boy and his family. So Long, See You Tomorrow empathizes with the families, in the care and attention it gives to an intimate, fictional portrayal of their lives. The compassion he shows to the real life Cletus years later by writing So Long, See You Tomorrow could in someway undo Maxwell’s youthful mistake; it could soothe the wound Maxwell feared he inflicted. Maybe, even, it was not only after publishing the novel, as he says in the preface, that Maxwell wondered if there’d be contact. Maybe he wondered about that possibility before he ever wrote the book.Because he blended imagination and memory, we can perhaps discover things about Maxwell based on what he lets himself imagine. In So Long, See You Tomorrow, it’s that his time spent with Cletus Smith and his family possibly is a means of redemption for Maxwell. They Came Like Swallows, which depicts and thus preserves the time right before Maxwell’s mother died, could reveal much about Maxwell’s inner life: maybe at its most elemental it’s reflective of his longing for his mother as he brings her back to life through fiction. We come to understand his world filtered through his desires and regrets, thus unraveling what Maxwell might have wished was more real than it actually was, and, of course, what he might have wished was only imaginary.