Category Archives: john williams

Sam Mendes Adapting Butcher's Crossing for Film

Butcher's CrossingRecent readers to this site know that I’ve been evangelizing for John Williams since I read his novel Stoner.

This year I’m planning to read his novel Butcher’s Crossing (which I’ve been told is even better than Stoner, though I hardly believe that’s possible), and now I see that Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes is adapting it for film. Say what you will about Revolutionary Road (I thought it worked fairly well as a film, though it approached the material with with too much of a now-we-know-better smugness), this can only be a good thing for fans of John Williams. With an assist from Leo and Kate, Revolutionary Road experienced a huge bump in sales and Richard Yates was briefly a spot of attention for the chattering classes.

One potential problem with the flick, though, is that Joe Penhall, who adapted The Road for film, is working on the script for Butcher. I know that it takes a lot of people to make a movie, but the end result of the cinematizing of The Road indicated that somewhere along the line they lost sight entirely of what the book was about and what made it so uniquely affecting and effective.

Stoner!

I've been on a bit of a Stoner crusade since I read this book back in October. It really is that good, and given that it was out of print for a good 30 years until NYRB published their edition in 2006, I figured it must be fairly overlooked.

Well, looks like it may not be quite as overlooked as I thought. In addition to my own appreciation for it at The Millions' Year in Reading, we find two other partisans. Edan Lepucki:

Stoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day. It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages. The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri. In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life.

And Patrick Brown:

Stoner, by John Williams, is not only the best novel I read this year, but it’s among the best I’ve ever read. It is also, I think, the sort of book that people aren’t writing right now. It’s a life, from the moment when its protagonist Bill Stoner really comes alive in a sophomore English class at the University of Missouri through his career as a professor of English there. About halfway through the novel is one of the best scenes I’ve ever encountered in a book. I don’t want to describe it too much here, as discovering it is one of the pleasures of the book, but I think they should teach it in writing classes everywhere, as it really is a perfect scene. In fact, Stoner is a perfect novel.

So one more time, with feeling: read Stoner! And feel free to join me in 2010 for Butcher's Crossing.

Celebrating Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John WilliamsFor a long time now I’ve meant to read the mid-century American novel Stoner by John Williams. NYRB Classics publishes two of Williams’ books (Stoner and the National Book Award winner Butcher’s Crossing), and Scott Bryan Wilson, a very trusted fellow reader, has long recommended the book.

I finally got around to Stoner while in Canada, and it was an absolute pleasure. Simply put, the book is about nothing more and nothing less than a human life. You can get a sense of the novel’s aims in its very first paragraph, which reads:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of eighteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, whre he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

There it is, a life in all its mediocrity and banality. Writing a very first paragraph like this is almost a challenge to the reader: Williams dares us to read on, to see if we will find some reason to justify following for 273 pages of what sounds like a completely un-novelistic life. It is a daring task to set yourself as an author, to declare your intents so openly in the first paragraph and then to proceed apace before the reader’s eyes. Williams succeeds masterfully in simply telling the story of a life so well that we want to know it, no matter that the life is merely average. Stoner is the kind of book to give simple literary realism a good name, a book that shows that the genre still has secrets to offer up to us and where perhaps not a single word is out of place.

Williams makes Stoner’s life one that is both worth living and worth reading about without resorting to high adventure, sentimentality, or even so much as unconventionality. Stoner comes from a farm; he originally goes to university to get a degree in agriculture, but halfway through he becomes arrested by literature. To his parents’ shock (beautifully and impassively underplayed by Williams), upon graduation Stoner reveals he will not go back to the farm. As he grows more estranged from his family and the life he previously knew, Stoner’s life becomes a sort of struggle for this man to discover a place for himself in a world that he has thrust himself into, behind schedule and ill-equipped.

In truth, Stoner’s life is in many ways underwhelming: his marriage fails, his daughter’s life is depressing, his career as a professor is average at best. Yet the novel Stoner seethes with what beauty can be had in the everyday, and in these moments it is one of the best-observed novels I have read in a long, long while. Williams is a master of understatement, of the simple, carefully wrought sentence that communicates beyond its means. Here, for instance, is what happens when Sloane, Stoner’s mentor, is buried:

Sloane had no family; only his colleagues and a few people from town gathered around the narrow pit and listened in awe, embarrassment, and respect as the minister said his words. And because he had no family or loved ones to mourn his passing, it was Stoner who wept when the casket was lowered, as if that weeping might reduce the loneliness of the last descent. Whether he wept for himself, for the part of his history and youth that went down to the earth, or whether for the poor thin figure that once kept the man he had loved, he did not know.

Eventually what comes of this spectacularly structured, carefully manipulated novel is much more than the events of Stoner’s life. It is something that spills over with humanity, a book that is by turns touching, absurd, confounding, and beautiful. Without ostentation, the book simply celebrates the everyday as something worth living for. It is also an aesthetic treat, a book that any student of the novel would do well to examine closely.

I’ll also note that in celebrating this novel I am in very good company.

Two by John Williams / Butcher’s Crossing (1960) / Stoner (1965)

Bc

Given that my literary tastes run towards big, ambitious, hyperactive novels, it wouldn’t seem that Butcher's Crossing and Stoner, the second and third novels (of four) from John Williams, would both be in my all-time favorite list (top twenty-five*): both are written in a hardworking, "plain" style–beautifully written in that style, if that makes any sense–and tell quiet, introspective stories of loners.
    Butcher’s Crossing must have been one of the first literary or "revisionist" westerns (Oakley Hall’s Warlock came out in 1958), one that operated without all the cliches and predictability of the genre. (And speaking as someone who has a couple hundred American westerns on DVD and who can’t get enough of the genre, I mean this in no way disparagingly; but like directors John Ford, Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, Henry Hathaway, Raoul Walsh, Sam Peckinpah, etc, Williams saw that the possibilities of the western to exceed the thin ground that the genre usually covered were worth exploring.) Anyway it tells the story of Will Andrews, who leaves Boston to head west to have a poetic communion with the wilderness, and who gets caught up with a group of hunters heading out to an area where, years before, one of the men had found what he thought to be a secret buffalo grazing ground where they could get ten thousand hides, easy. Williams investigates so many aspects of human loneliness and manhood and madness and Ahab-like obsession—as well as the myth of the old west and speculation that ties in well with the current American economic crisis— and does it all with great intensity and beauty: “When he lifted his head he could see the ground in front of him littered with the mounded corpses of buffalo, and the remaining herd—apparently little diminished—circling almost mechanically now, in a kind of dumb rhythm, as if impelled by the regular explosions of Miller’s gun.” When Will Andrews gets his first bathing “since last August,” Williams’ description of it is just as beautiful and realistic and disgusting as the passages detailing the hiding and gutting and stripping of the dead buffalo.

Stoner-john-williams-paperback-cover-art
    William Stoner is the focus of the 1965 novel. He's the child of farmers who attends school and goes on to have a quiet life in academia. The crushing sadness that pervades—with a few well-intentioned exceptions—every page of this novel is impressive; it’s almost beyond comparison: “He carried this feeling of loss with him throughout the graduation exercises; when his name was spoken and he walked across the platform to receive a scroll from a man faceless behind a soft gray beard, he could not believe his own presence, and the roll of parchment in his hand had no meaning. He could only think of his mother and father sitting stiffly and uneasily in the great crowd.” That’s from page twenty-two—Stoner can cut through huge swaths of time in a sentence or two, as we follow William Stoner from a boy until he dies, nearly three hundred pages later. That Williams was able to encompass not only every aspect of Stoner’s life, but also to so profoundly investigate the loneliness and the sadness (and the happiness!) of his life in such a short book is stunning. I’ll say it: Williams’ writing is absolutely perfect. You know how every ad for whatever mass-market crap or generic brainless thriller or vampire romance mentions how it’s “impossible to put down”? Well for those of us who would find those books impossible to pick up in the first place, I found Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner impossible to put down, to the detriment of my sleep cycle, as I read them back-to-back. (Followed then by Williams’ first novel, Nothing but the Night (1948), which is fairly forgettable, and his last, Augustus (1973), which won the National Book Award, and is worth reading but is nowhere near the inhuman masterpieces Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner. He also wrote two books of poetry which are impossible to find.)
    Anyway, just thought since I was filling in here at Conversational Reading I would blather on about some more books which I find extremely worthwhile and important and which should be read by more people. I don’t think I’ve really done them justice here at all but hopefully my enthusiasm will show through . . .

*Not that I keep a list like that or anything, but just roughing it as an idea I can’t imagine these two wouldn’t make it if I did put that list together.

 


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