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.

Cities on the Plain [Border Trilogy #3] by Cormac McCarthy

“He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.”

Cities of the Plain is the most focused of The Border Trilogy. It’s less grandiose than All the Pretty Horses, and less ponderous than The Crossing, but extraneous elements which either dragged or elevated the preceding books — depending on your point of view — have been removed: the prose is smoother; there are (fewer) page-long discussions with wise strangers imparting wisdom; there is less rumination on the landscape. This is because this novel is more eager to focus on two subjects more directly: obsession, and the world’s disregard for what you think it should be.

Modernity has swept into McCarthy’s South West. Cars are as common to see as horses, and the lights of cities in the distance are ever-present. The army is trying to claim the land our protagonists live upon. A sense of dread hangs over proceedings like storm clouds.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham return. They occasionally venture across the Mexican border, which unsurprisingly does not, as those that have read the preceding books can guess, keep their lives simple.

Cole’s fixation on a young prostitute showcases his naivete and with Parham’s dry wisecracking mouth at his side he comes across as more relatable than the confident horse-whisperer of the first book. He is out of his element here, and more interesting for it. The dual-protagonists play off each other in funny and tender ways, echoing lost relationships from the last books which might otherwise have been forgotten, giving a sense of poignancy to the events.

There’s a great sense of suspense as the novel falls into place, the feeling that things cannot end well. When I put it down after finishing I felt catharsis. It’s a great end to an inspired, occasionally fun but deeply sad series that I enjoyed a massive amount. Highly recommended.