This book is astonishingly beautiful. I’ve read it twice in two weeks and I want to read it again already. It has taken me far longer than usual to write about, because I am struggling to find adequate words to express just how magnificent it is. It is just so elegantly, tenderly, movingly written, in prose that is delicate, graceful, understated, yet incredibly powerful. Maxwell’s narrator, now an old man, looks back to a pivotal event in his childhood, when a tenant farmer, Lloyd Wilson, was murdered by his former best friend, Clarence Smith, on a frosty morning in rural Illinois. Prior to this murder, the narrator had been friends with Smith’s son, Cletus, and he is haunted with the guilt of failing to maintain this relationship after Cletus’ life fell apart.
In less than 150 pages, Maxwell paints a portrait of rural life, of childhood, of loneliness, of friendship, of love, of grief, and of regret, so profound and so immediate that it takes your breath away. I was moved to tears in several places as Maxwell described the bond between Lloyd and Clarence, of their dependence on each other, of the joy each brought to the other’s lives; trapped as they are in a harsh, poverty stricken existence, tied to loveless marriages of convenience, and the pain Lloyd brought upon Clarence by helplessly falling in love with his wife.
Interspersed with the story of Lloyd and Clarence is that of the narrator himself, whose lonely childhood was filled with grief for the mother he lost too young, and was marked by his crippling shyness and sensitivity, making him fully aware that he was a disappointment to his father and would never fit in with his contemporaries. So Long, See You Tomorrow is highly deceptive; seemingly simple, the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved. It is utterly, overwhelmingly, heartbreaking. Worst of all is the guilt felt by the narrator, who cannot forgive himself for failing to extend a hand of friendship to Cletus after the tragedy that tore his young life apart. I know well that feeling, of not being able to change, or atone for, an action in the past; how it haunts and taunts and poisons your memories, how it makes you wish you could have been braver, wiser, kinder.
I don’t think I have come across a finer work of modern fiction, except perhaps in Gilead. The magnificence of So Long, See You Tomorrow is impossible to overstate; it is perfection. It’s only 134 pages long – please take an afternoon and read it for yourself. It will pierce your soul, and remind you of what true greatness is.