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Tag: john williams

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Butcher’s Crossing is the most flawed, the most peculiar, and the most exuberant of Williams’ three mature novels (he disowned a first novel, which I have not read). Unlike the near-perfect tenors of the academic novel Stoner and Augustus, Butcher’s Crossing sees some significant shifts in tone over the course of the book. All three novels are Bildungsromans, but here Williams also attempts to tell the story of the decline of the American West as well. That is why, unlike the other two novels, it is not titled after the main character but the frontier town which provides the settings for the bookends of the novel.

Will Andrews is a Harvard student who, inspired by Emerson, drops out to find himself in the great West. After arriving in Butcher’s Crossing, he funds a hunting expedition to a distant valley in Colorado where a great herd of buffalo still remain, most of the other herds having already been hunted down and killed for hides. He is naive and for a time it seems he could be easily scammed, but the leader of the expedition, Miller, is serious, and after Andrews has a slight dalliance with a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, they set out with two other grizzled men.

So the ground for an archetypal post-western has been laid, and the themes follow those that would be used (and overused) by Cormac McCarthy, Once Upon a Time in the West, and, of course, Stan Ridgway and Wall of Voodoo:

harshly awakened by the sound of six rounds of light caliber rifle fire followed minutes later by the booming of nine rounds from a heavier rifle, but you can’t close off the wilderness. he heard the snick of a rifle bolt and found himself staring down the muzzle of a weapon held by a drunken liquor store owner. “there’s a conflict,” he said. “there’s a conflict between land and people…the people have to go. they’ve come all the way out here to make mining claims, to do automobile body work, to gamble, to take pictures, to not have to do laundry, to own a mini-bike, to have their own cb radios and air conditioning, good plumbing for sure, and to sell time/life books and to work in a deli, to have some chili every morning and maybe…maybe to own their own gas stations again and to take drugs and have some crazy sex, but above all, above all to have a fair shake, to get a piece of the rock and a slice of the pie and to spit out the window of your car and not have the wind blow it back in your face.”

“Call of the West”

And that does somewhat mimic the arc in the book. Things get immediately dire as they have trouble finding water, and less than a third of the way into the book, things do seem to be shaping up for a sheer hellishness. But they find the water and the valley, and soon enough they are hunting (i.e., massacring in large numbers) buffalo. There is a sustained, 40-page description of the early days of the hunt that may be the most focused setpiece Williams ever wrote, and the turning point in Andrews’ character.

It came to him that he had turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away.

Such introspection is comparatively rare in the novel. Extensive and careful description is more common, but when it comes like it does here, it is strikingly abstract and visceral simultaneously. I don’t know if the effect is quite successful (thought it beats Cormac any day), but it’s certainly unusual. Williams resists any broad judgments of character. If Andrews is losing his humanity, then “humanity” is not an absolute value. He is freed from this sort of condescension towards the whore that he felt earlier in Butcher’s Crossing:

He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place, betrayed by certain artificialities of conduct, thrust from a great mechanical world upon this bare plateau of existence that fronted the wilderness. He thought of Schneider, who had caught her arm and spoken coarsely to her; and he imagined vaguely the humiliations she had schooled herself to endure. A revulsion against the world rose up within him, and he could taste it in his throat.

Much, much later, after returning to Butcher’s Crossing, Andrews thinks back to this very moment and excoriates his younger self for his callow snobbery.

But returning to the plot: after the first day, things become blurry. They continue killing and skinning thousands of buffalo, and Miller, the expert guide and hunter, really wants to kill them all, even if it means leaving hundreds of skins to bring back to following spring. Unfortunately, it starts to snow, and they are stranded in the valley between the mountains all winter long.

As with the scenes where they nearly die of thirst, this would seem to be another potential hell, an existential misery. But Williams pulls back from this desolate Bresson scenario to aim more at The Wages of Fear, and six months of surely excruciating boredom pass fairly quickly without any Shining-like incidents. (In terms of page count, they pass more quickly than that first day of hunting.) I do think that this points to a fundamental stoicism in Williams’ work: for Augustus, Stoner, and Andrews, the hell comes from without, not from within. Events, not ennui, shape character.

Spring comes and they head back, and the book shifts again. Butcher’s Crossing has been transformed and ravaged by the end of the buffalo hide market, and Andrews’ growth is overshadowed by Miller’s desperate attempts to cope with the extinction of his chosen life from which he draws his pride. But the threads unravel; Williams can’t quite make Miller’s collapse mesh with Andrews’ development because Andrews does not learn anything new from it. Rather, Andrews finally does sleep with Francine, the whore from earlier, in a scene where Williams’ writing falls into the floridness described by Pynchon in critiquing his own first published story:

You’ll notice that toward the end of the story, some kind of sexual encounter appears to take place, though you’d never know it from the text. The language suddenly gets too fancy to read. Maybe this wasn’t only my own adolescent nervousness about sex…Even the American soft-core pornography available in those days went to absurdly symbolic lengths to avoid describing sex.

Thomas Pynchon, Introduction to Slow Learner

And in general, Williams’ writing is a little too lush and artful in Butcher’s Crossing, lacking the architectural precision of the later two novels. He is still a wonderful writer, but one is more conscious of him making an effort.

Butcher’s Crossing is a novel of discrete sections, and the ways they do and don’t fit together outline the refinements that Williams would make to his fictive approach. (Reading early work after later work, as I did with Thomas Bernhard’s “Walking”, sometimes helps to illuminate the best parts of the early work more vividly.) Williams abandoned the larger societal picture after this novel to focus on a single character and his milieu, and I suspect he found fault with the dual-pronged nature of Butcher’s Crossing as well. But he also abandoned the idea of the setpiece. It’s understandable, but based on that hunting section, he could have been a master at it. (He also learned how to write female characters; the women of Stoner are far more convincing than the one-dimensional Francine.)

But what of the greater themes of the book? I still think that Williams is pretty cagey about making statements and that the book requires that the author and the reader do not judge Miller and his kind too harshly. The West drives him and others to nihilism (explicitly voiced by a hide trader late in the book), but is this a fundamental truth, a consequence of their ravaging of the land, or just the aftermath of the extinction of their way of life? I do not see a definite answer. We do know that Andrews is changed, even if we don’t know quite what he becomes, and that is the heart of the book.

John Williams: Augustus

Williams wrote the serious, affecting academic novel Stoner before he wrote this (mostly) epistolary novel about Augustus Caesar. Despite Williams’ protestations that both novels are concerned with power, the poor academic Stoner had no power while the characters in this one have nothing but. Augustus himself does not speak until the short, final section. The rest of the novel is told in letters between his family, friends, and a few enemies (Cicero and Mark Antony).

Williams ignores the influence of Robert Graves’s salacious Claudius novels and most of the dicier gossip of the time. It is a very high-minded and “Greek” treatment of the Romans. Augustus’ wife Livia is not the murderous witch of the Graves books, merely tough-minded and manipulative, though Augustus sees right through her. In parts Williams goes out of his way to avoid the pettier emotions: Augustus sentences his daughter Julia to a brutal island exile in order to save her life, not to punish her for treason. Augustus is also not concerned with her promiscuity or with promiscuity in general; his draconian marriage laws are merely to promulgate virtue, not demand it. This Augustus is, if anything, closest to the spectral Augustus of The Death of Virgil, who is more a philosophical respondent to Virgil than an actual person. Williams’s Augustus even expresses regret for exiling Ovid.

So Augustus emerges as a preternaturally calm and clear-headed person, as close to the ideal of the enlightened monarch as one could hope. Before his ascent, in the first half of the book, he is a cold, masterful tactician. After becoming emperor, he is a stoic ruler resigned to the unhappiness and isolation that he has brought on himself and pessimistic that the tide of chaos can be fought off after his death. This dialogue with Julia, after he has chosen Tiberius reluctantly but mindfully as his underwhelming successor, is representative:

“Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”

My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe that it has,” he said. “We both must believe that it has.”

Here, as elsewhere, he is more Marcus Aurelius than Augustus.

The things that get out of Augustus’s control do not do so because of human fallibility and weakness, at least not on Augustus’s part. In his final monologue, he expresses little but resignation for what he has accomplished, and he regrets the loss of friendship and ordinary life that his position has cost him. These are the strongest moments in the book, the contrast between the benevolent despot and the young genius among his talented friends and compatriots, the last time he knew actual friendship.

In contrast, the weak point is Julia. Williams seems to have made a conscious decision to give Julia a long and retrospective part in the book, writing her memoirs after Augustus’s death on a larger and less wretched island than the original site of her exile. She writes as a mature, disappointed woman who holds little anger, someone who has lost whatever power she once had. She is happy, but Williams does not succeed in defining her sufficiently to make her more than a foil for Augustus. Perhaps this is a result of the paradox he set himself: Julia and Augustus cannot engage in a real dialogue over the course of the book because they are inhabiting different worlds. Williams does better in having other characters describe their relationships with Augustus, because among all his generals and advisers there is mutual understanding among the intrigue and mistrust, and so they all feel imminently present and evoke how Augustus is always at a remove, even when speaking for himself.

What is its relation to Stoner, which portrays little but small spiritual triumph in an unromanticized academic life? The pains and losses in Augustus are so large as to overwhelm most of the “human” motivations that drive Stoner (as well as most novels). The book reads something like a thought experiment: if Augustus had been so reflective and benevolent, how could the events of his life be explained? What results is an old masters portrait of Augustus, larger than life and larger than human emotion, but still in touch with both.

John Williams: Stoner

Whatever my reservations about the New York Review of Books, if it subsidizes reissues of things like this, I pardon its sins. Extra points for choosing such an apt cover painting to implicitly portray its hapless professor hero:


And here is Stoner speaking:

Stoner looked across the room, out of the window, trying to remember. “The three of us were together, and he said–something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as–as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as…The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

Walker is an ignorant, smooth-talking, careerist academic, and there’s little separating his portrayal in this book (from 1965, but taking place mostly in the first half of the century) from these sorts of people today. Stoner is an impractical dreamer, a farmboy who goes to a local college and discovers he loves literature, and so does his graduate work at the same school and then gets a professorship there. He makes two mistakes: he marries the wrong woman, and he makes the wrong enemy in his department. These are big mistakes, and he pays big for them.

I cannot recall any other academic novel that treats its subject material with such unremitting gravity. The standard model of an academic novel is to either indulge in high melodrama (Mary McCarthy, Iris Murdoch) or to make light of the intellectual pretenses of its characters (Kinsley Amis’s overrated Lucky Jim, Malcolm Bradbury’s far funnier Stepping Westward). Williams’s approach seems to have been to adopt the social realist approach of George Gissingand Sinclair Lewis’s more sober moments and apply it to the incongruous and hermetic world of a university. Consequently, he treats the small events of Stoner’s life with a sense of real consequence, as though they were matters of life and death. And so they become.

After his mistakes, Stoner is a defeated man, and it takes him years to recover. But what saves the novel from being just an exercise in misery is that Stoner does get his triumph. He fights against the inertial decline of his life, and he wins. It is, objectively speaking, a small triumph, but on the terms that Williams has set, it validates his existence without qualification. The novel is a passage from ideals that cannot be fulfilled to a non-tragic view of life, and it’s summarized best in this passage:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age, he began to know that it was neither a stae of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as an act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

I don’t mean to downplay the brutally accurate portrayals of academic politics and fleeting trends, which feel absolutely au courant, but the novel would not stand out as it does if it did not treat its subject matter with the same respect and humility with which Stoner himself treats literature and teaching.

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