Book Reviews

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell — haunted by the past

Cover of So Long, See  You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, s short tale about regret and loss

William Maxwell’s short novel So Long, See You Tomorrow is an elegantly written tale of regret and loss seen from the perspective of a man looking back on his childhood.

The narrative combines two stories. One concerns the murder of a farmer in Lincoln, Illinois in the 1920s and the subsequent suicide of the main suspect. The other is about a boy (whose life bears many similarities to that of Maxwell) and his friendship with Cletus, son of the murderer.

The friendship was over after only a few days of roaming through the shell of a half-finished house. As they part each day they call “So long, see you tomorrow” to each other. But one day Cletus never appears at their stomping ground — he’s been moved from Lincoln to escape the stigma of his father’s crime. The boys never speak again.

They do see other once more in the hallway of their new school in Chicago a few years later — but the narrator doesn’t even acknowledge his former friend and walks right past him. His rejection of Cletus has haunted him for some fifty years.

If I knew where Cletus Smith is right this minute, I would go and explain. Or try to. It is not only possible but more than likely that I would also have to explain who I am. And that he would have no recollection of the moment that has troubled me all these years. He lived through things that were a good deal worse. It might turn out that I had made the effort for my sake, not his.

Now an elderly man, the narrator (who is never named) tries to atone for the way he treated Cletus by attempting a reconstruction of events leading up to the murder. The novel is largely based on this reconstruction, interspersed with recollections about the narrator’s life, particularly the death of his mother when he was a boy and his lack of connection with his father.

It makes for a very odd book. There are 153 pages split into nine chapters, some of which are a first person account of the narrator’s lonely childhood. Most of he book however relates how Cletus’ father Clarence Smith discovered his wife was having an affair with a close friend and neighbour. In his anger and jealousy Clarence then shot the neighbour. All of this is in the third person with the exception of one section where we are taken inside the mind of the family dog.

There was far too much emphasis given to this story line and far too much detail about who said what to whom. I read on and on, hoping that soon we’d get back to the question of why the narrator blanked his former friend. We got there in the end but there was no great revelation.

Though touching at times the overwhelming atmosphere is one of restraint, as if the narrator is holding back on some of his most deeply felt emotions. Consequently I found it difficult to engage with this man and was glad when the book came to an end. After the emotional heft I enjoyed in Maxwell’s later novella, They Came Like Swallows, this book was a major disappointment.

Ann Patchett, in an introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of So Long See You Tomorrow, describes the book as a “singular and spectacular work of art” that reflects Mawell’s ability to write from deep within the human soul. Hmmm I think she’s guilty of viewing this piece of fiction with extremely rose tinted glasses.

This was the sixth book I read from my #20booksofsummer23 list.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

18 thoughts on “So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell — haunted by the past

  • Pingback: Reading Wrap Up — August 2023 : BookerTalk

  • I’ve yet to read Maxwell, I own a couple including this one I think, but I’ll check if I have They Came Like Swallows first.

    • I think if I’d read So Long… first, I wouldn’t have been keen to pick up another Maxwell and would thus have missed out on “Swallows”

  • Pingback: Books of Summer 2023: Random Choices From The Shelves : BookerTalk

    • The section about the adulterous relationship was disconcerting because it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the narrator’s guilt about his friend.

    • Some readers left very positive reviews on Goodreads so it might be to your taste Deb.

  • Hmm, I bought this, on Ann Patchett’s recommendation. And I’ve got They Came Like Swallows too.
    I may have wasted my money!

    • They Came Like Swallows is the stronger of the two so if you want to try him, I’d suggest starting with that one

  • You’ve made an excellent job of persuading me not to add this to my TBR!

  • wadholloway

    Having a dog’s eye first person POV would be the end for me. And I’m going to have to interrogate myself and work out why I prefer novels to be one story by one person going from the beginning to the end.

    • I don’t mind having more than one narrator as long as that adds value but too often it’s just a flourish that isn’t necessary

  • I just checked my post on this from a few years ago : I liked its slow burning style much more than you did, but I can see that it could easily not appeal.

    • I didn’t mine the pace – my problem was that i couldn’t see what value it brought to spend so much time on the minute details of the adultery

  • I had a very similar experience with this book, after hearing it hyped up – maybe on Backlisted podcast? – and it was okay, good, but not earth shattering, for the very reasons you set out. Sounds like I shouldn’t give up on the author entirely though!

    • If you enjoyed parts of it, then maybe its worth giving They Came Like Swallows a go. I thought it was more cohesive


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