Footprints across the wheat belt

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW by William Maxwell, Harvill Press pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
Europeans do not usually associate the American Mid-West with dark passions. Much more likely in this land of wide open spaces are hard work and can-do optimism. Yet William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow is a tale that with a few minor adjustments could have been written by Flaubert.

The story is a simple one - two Illinois farming families are destroyed first by a love affair and then by a murder. Such tragedy is no stranger to fiction. So the power of this 130-page novella comes in the way the narrator, who as a teenager enjoyed a shaky friendship with the son of one of the families, pieces together what happened from newspaper reports and various points of view, and imbues it all with his own sense of guilt.

If such a painstaking yet economical approach to what he, early on, describes as "a roundabout, futile way of making amends" seems familiar, it is because Maxwell - though hardly well-known in this country - can be seen as a custodian of the New Yorker house style. As an editor at the magazine in its glory days, he played an important role in the development of such great writers as the Johns Updike, Cheever and O'Hara, as well as countless other lesser stars.

As Richard Ford acknowledges on the cover, this book has also been a big influence on the growth of writers, such as himself, who fell outside that circle. It made members of his generation "all think we needed to write a short novel and magically that we could do it".

When the book appeared in the United States in 1980, it was Maxwell's first novel for 18 years. But he had kept up a steady stream of stories, many of which are collected in All The Days and Nights (also just published by Harvill Press, pounds 10.99).

Here, the locale is split between his native rural Illinois and his adopted New York City. But whatever the situation, there is so much atmosphere and detail that the reader is at one moment convinced that he or she is sipping cocktails in a swanky Manhattan hotel, as in the dark tale of brotherly rivalry "A Game of Chess", and at the next accompanying a small boy on his paper round in a town that could have featured in a Jimmy Stewart movie.

But, effective as the city stories are in a sophisticated John Cheever sort of way, it is the portraits of the not-so-simple farm life in the Wheat Belt that make the octogenarian Maxwell compulsive reading after all these years.

Whether it is stories like "The Trojan Women" and "What Every Boy Should Know" or this powerful miniature, there is great sense of place as well as a chilling ability to remind us that bad things can happen anywhere. "Very few families escape disasters of one kind or another, but in the years between 1909 and 1919 my mother's family had more than its share of them," he laconically points out. Moreover, the book offers proof, if any were needed, that "bad things" can have a much worse effect in the places where they are not supposed to happen. The depressing catalogue of collapse in the wake of the double tragedy is brought home in a single paragraph that begins "Whether they are part of home or home is 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."

It is no wonder that the book's footprints can be discerned not only in Ford's own short novel Wildfire, but also in, for instance, Larry Watson's portrait of claustrophobia on the Great Plains, Montana 1948.