I discovered the brilliant writing of John Edward Williams about a year ago by way of recommendation by a fellow reader I’ve come to trust. Persuaded by his review, I began with Williams’ third novel, Stoner.
My friend was right. Stoner is a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that still haunts me.
Set in the early half of the twentieth century, it is the story of William Stoner, the son of poor Missouri dirt farmers, who is sent to the state university with the expectation of working his way through agricultural studies in preparation for returning to the farm. Instead, he discovers and falls in love with literature and life as a scholar. Stoner remains at the university as an instructor, marries disastrously, fathers a daughter whom he loves deeply, is thwarted in his career by the vicious politics of academia, and has a doomed affair with a student.
Stoner could be a story of any unremarkable man who endures with that familiar quiet desperation the disappointments that life indiscriminately metes out to the ordinary. But in Williams’ hands, with a beautifully quiet, understated narrative style, Stoner becomes truly heroic – his heart, soul, and character revealed through his losses. We can only cheer him through our tears.
A year after reading Stoner, which is still very much with me, I was hesitant to take up another Williams novel. I could not imagine another work, especially an earlier one, sustaining that level of writing and I did not want to be disappointed.
I shouldn’t have worried. I have just finished Williams’ second novel, Butcher’s Crossing, a novel of the American frontier set in the 1870’s. The setting, subject, and characters are completely different from those of Stoner, but the Williams narrative, restrained, reflective and interior to the central character, was instantly recognizable.
Will Andrews is a young Bostonian from an well-to-do family. He has dropped out of Harvard in his third year to go west in search of something, some vague Emersonian ideal of finding himself in the wildness of nature. “I came out here to see as much of the country as I can,” he tells a hide dealer in Butcher’s Crossing, a mean little way-station on the edge of the Kansas prairie, “I want to get to know it. It’s something I have to do.”
Andrews finds himself in a dirty, primitive, harsh environment relying on some very hard men. The story is somewhat reminiscent of a mix of Jack London, Cormac McCarthy, and Hemingway, but the narrative style is all Williams. And Williams’ detail of the life of that time and place is so minute and rich, it’s hard to imagine the research he must have done – the filth and vermin, the smells, what a mortal thirst can do to a man’s body and mind, the insane carnage of a white man’s buffalo hunt, and above all, how unexpectedly and instantly nature can deal death to man and beast. Will Andrews wants to test himself against the wild, but powerful elemental forces overtake his purpose.
A PERSONAL NOTE (since this is a personal journal):
I recommend both books. I will re-read both, as I do with books that I think are worthy and memorable. As a reader, my emotions were profoundly stirred by Stoner, to an extent that very few books effect for me. With Butcher’s Crossing, my engagement as a reader was just as high, but more so with the intelligence of the book, its realism of character and setting, and its compelling storyline. What I do say about each book, equally, is this: once I started reading the book, I could not let it go.