Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – Review

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“They do the work, and he gets all the money. They think he’s a crook, and he thinks they’re fools. You can’t blame either side; they’re both right.”

In Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, an attempt to explore nature goes very, very wrong. The majority of this novel takes place in a large, isolated valley in the Colorado mountains. Blistering heat and deathly cold bear down on hunters who have gone into the wilderness searching for buffalo (a species, during this novel’s time period, nearly extinct).

The protagonist is William Andrews, a Harvard drop out in the 1870s gone west because of a longing for nature, solitude, and something more intangible. The same naive instincts which pushed him from his warm home leave him unready for this expedition. Things get difficult, and his mind begins to mimic an automaton focused on nothing but staying alive; concerns like companionship and comfort fall away into snowbanks, and his hands grow hard while his head goes numb.

Though written decades before the idea of Neo-Westerns became common, Butcher’s Crossing has many of the genre-trappings: gruff, often immoral characters; a pitiless view of nature; the idea that greed was a far more powerful motivator in the American push westward than any sort of manifest destiny. Williams, however, approaches the time period and gruff figures with his trademark tenderness, and by casting an understanding eye on this band of hunters, and despite some dabbling in nihilism, the novel finds nobility in desperation.

The snow and distance warp the minds of Andrews’ company too, and a strange sense of freeing detachment came over me in a way few books have let me feel. Williams never allows guiltless romanticization, but he captures what drew so many men into this difficult life in the first place: everyday concerns float away from these men, and subsequently from anyone reading. As a result, and this may sound like an odd description given the harsh subject matter, this novel can be deeply relaxing.

If you let your mind focus and absorb the pages describing what should be tedious drudge work, you’ll find yourself falling into an almost meditative state. This is likely the work of Williams’ prose, which is beautiful and smooth; it enhances the atmosphere while rarely drawing attention to itself with stylistic flourishes. The result is a novel which you will drift through faster than most novels claiming to be ‘page-turners’ while still having your mind guided in powerful directions you could never predict.

Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

Stoner by John Williams – Review

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

William Stoner is a university professor with little ambition who walks through the world as though bracing against a strong and cutting wind. When he sits at a desk, it is too small for him; when he puts on clothes, the cuffs are too tight; after marriage, he discovers his wife is as bad a fit as most everything else in his life. His life is a slow, quiet trudge through ill ease.

This is a novel which is sad and tender, moving you over an emotional cliff face with a gentle touch and then watching you fall with pity.

It’s odd then that it’s such a joy to read.

The charming and meticulous prose surely helps. You can feel the effort and thought put into each sentence radiating from the pages:

“He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.”

Williams has the gift of being incredibly erudite without excluding readers. There are few allusions to outside texts (or at least ones the reader needs to know to understand), and the language rarely uses in obscure words or references. Instead, word choices are so meticulous, and each sentence flows into the next with such delicacy, that this is writing which is simply awe inspiring.

William Stoner is big-hearted in the meek Midwestern way, and thus intensely loveable, so the attachment I and so many other readers have formed with him shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet it’s unusual for a protagonist to be so passive, and  strange how the petty acts of cruelty against him made me angrier than acts of pure evil in other novels. His timidity pushes a theme of isolation and endurance in a cruel world, and this may be what makes small moments all the more affecting.

Other characters are created and carefully cast aside by the author, but never forgotten by the reader. Dave Masters, for example, appears for maybe ten pages at a stretch yet has lodged himself more firmly in my mind than the protagonists from many other novels.

So this book is hardly plot heavy and has none of the hallmarks of what could be considered a page-turner, yet I didn’t want to stop reading. It gives you with the kind of warmth William Stoner longs for in literature and which makes me grateful as a reader, and so now I’ve finished I’ve already ordered another John Williams novel to light the same sort of fire in my chest.