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.
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.