44 pages 1 hour read

William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


So Long, See You Tomorrow is the acclaimed final novel by American writer and editor William Maxwell. Originally published in two parts in New Yorker magazine in 1979, the book appeared the following year and received the prestigious National Book Award in 1982. Maxwell was the fiction editor of the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, making him one of the most influential literary editors of the era. He worked closely with J. D. Salinger and developed friendly relationships with authors including Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Updike. He published six novels and many short stories, frequently inspired by his early life in Illinois.

So Long, See You Tomorrow is an autobiographical novel set in Maxwell’s hometown of Lincoln, Illinois. It explores the author’s memories and regrets surrounding a murder committed by his friend’s father. The story probes themes of Family Instability and Its Effect on Children, Father-Son Communication, and Memory and Fiction in a brief but expansive examination of storytelling itself.

This study guide refers to the Vintage International paperback edition published by Random House in 1996.

Content Warning: So Long, See You Tomorrow contains a death by suicide and human and animal abuse.

Plot Summary

On a winter morning in Lincoln, Illinois, a tenant farmer named Clarence Smith murders his neighbor Lloyd Wilson and cuts off his ear with a razor. Clarence is later found at the bottom of a gravel pit, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

An unnamed narrator has been haunted by memories of the murder/suicide for his whole life because he knew the murderer’s son Cletus. He harbors regrets about failing to speak to Cletus at school after Cletus’s father’s suicide. He is determined to make amends by writing a memoir, which is this book.

The narrator begins by describing his childhood. His mother dies two days after giving birth to his younger brother. The narrator’s loss is compounded by his father’s silence. His father is wracked by grief and guilt but gradually emerges and meets a kind younger woman who becomes the narrator’s stepmother.

The family moves into a rental while their new house is built. The narrator plays on the scaffolding at the construction site after school each day where he is joined by a new friend, Cletus. The narrator doesn’t get along well with boys at school, so Cletus’s companionship is meaningful to him. Their last evening together is the night before Clarence murders Lloyd.

After living in the new house for a short period, the narrator’s father receives a promotion and moves the family to Chicago. One day while walking in the hallway of his new high school, the narrator sees Cletus walking toward him. They pass without speaking. The narrator doesn’t know why he didn’t speak to Cletus and thinks of what he could have done differently. He wishes he could reconnect with Cletus and realizes he can only find his friend in the past.

The narrator embarks on an imagined recreation of the events leading to the murder. Lloyd and Clarence are best friends. They help each other with farm work and are welcome in one another’s homes. But Lloyd develops an uncontrollable desire for Clarence’s wife Fern, and she reciprocates his interest. They begin a secret love affair despite Lloyd’s sense of impending disaster and his guilt about deceiving Clarence.

Both marriages suffer as the affair progresses. Cletus can tell that something is wrong and gathers information from overheard conversations. Lloyd’s wife Marie leaves him and takes their daughters. Fern leaves Clarence and takes their sons. She sues Clarence for divorce and wins custody of the children.

Clarence is in despair over the loss of his wife, children, and best friend. He quits farming and moves in with his parents. Fern tells Lloyd and her lawyer that she is afraid of what Clarence might do.

In the present day, the narrator reflects on how much Lincoln has changed. He dreams about how the town looked in his childhood and in some his mother is alive in their old house. He still thinks about Cletus and feels guilt when he remembers passing by him at school. He wonders if Cletus was ever able to move past the tragic crime that altered his life.