In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.
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