First published in 1965 but out of print in the UK for many years, Vintage Classics' reissue of John Williams' Stoner has proved to be one of the unexpected hits of 2013. Its minimalist story of an undistinguished English professor at an unremarkable university who slowly retreats into a life purely of the mind has been hailed described as 'a perfect novel'.
With another of Williams' novels, Butcher's Crossing, now also available again, Brian Davey, a devoted fan of the author, suggests that the journey of discovery has only just begun for those new to this unique talent.
When you're a fan of a cult writer, the hardest thing to bear is when they're discovered by a wider audience. You start to see new editions of their books being printed with blurbs and introductions by luckier, still-breathing authors and possibly an endorsement from Richard & Judy. All the while you cling on to your tattered remaindered editions of their books thinking, 'I loved you before you were famous'. In 2013 this is exactly what happened to fans of John Williams.
It could safely be said that Williams has recently had what you could call 'a moment. His novel Stoner had recently been translated and started becoming a bestseller on the continent. Gradually it seemed everyone was touting it as the beach read of the summer and it has now started turning up in end of year lists in newspaper and literary supplements everywhere. A posthumous hit on the scale of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin or Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, this truly was Stoner's year.
Given this huge success it's no wonder then that the rest of William's (sadly slim) corpus would start to be rediscovered. Thus the reissue of Williams' western Butcher's Crossing should give us reason to celebrate. Originally published five years before Stoner, this probably is my favourite novel by Williams and possibly his most intriguing.
If Stoner is the story of the frustrations of a life spent inside the academy, you could say Butcher's Crossing is about the dangers of seeking experience in the real world. The protagonist, Will Andrews, is a young man inspired by the words of Emerson to get out into nature and become something. He ends up in Butcher's Crossing, a town on the brink of being transformed by commerce and the arrival of the rail. All fired up and with a little money to spare he helps fund an expedition, led by a grizzled outdoorsman named Miller, to find a herd of buffalo hidden in the Rockies, just waiting to be slaughtered.
What follows is a beautiful, brutal tale of innocence lost and the true cost of experience.
Now, if these all seem like familiar tropes of the Western, please don't let this put you off. All this is quite intentional on the part of Williams. All the stereotypes are here: the wide-eyed youngster, the grizzled old timer, the frontier courtesan - and are methodically dismantled by Williams. His cold eye is cast on these founding myths, like a doctor tracing the source of a disease.
References to classic American literature course through this book and in many ways, this could be considered a sort of chamber Moby-Dick, but without the bluster. Williams has an amazing way of making the mythic miniature and by doing so, reveals a different side to the Western.
What makes Butcher's Crossing so interesting is that such a literary author as Williams chose to write a Western. This is a genre that has all but dissipated and is rarely considered the territory of serious novelists. Although books by Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry are some of the most successful contemporary efforts, it seems that the Western can rarely escape its pulpy trappings. Indeed, I once found an early UK edition of Butcher's Crossing published in an omnibus, sandwiched in between a rip-roaring war story and a salacious spy thriller. What must its first readers have thought when expecting a boys-own, storming adventure? You can only imagine their puzzlement with William's florid prose and metaphysical ruminations:
During the first few days of the journey he had been so torn with the raw agony of movement that each forward step his mount took cut itself upon his nerves and upon his mind... The horse beneath him took him from hollow to crest, yet it seemed to him that the land rather than the horse moved beneath him like a great treadmill, revealing in its movement only another part of itself.
Zane Grey this ain't.
With this tendency towards prolixity and his long, run-on sentences, William's style is fairly antithetical to what you'd typically expect from the western and its hard-bitten tropes. Indeed if there's another American author that Williams owes anything to it's probably the Master himself, Henry James. Basically, if you can imagine an alternate universe, where James saddled up with his friend, Owen Wister (author of The Virginian), Butcher's Crossing is probably something like the novel he would have written.
But this is not a roundabout way of saying that this is a stately novel. Butcher's Crossing, can be quite a violent read, especially in the central section whereby the buffalo are systematically massacred. All this is rendered in pellucid prose that makes it entirely unforgettable. But in its dealing with man's rapaciousness and greed this is an incredibly prescient work. Williams weaves ideas about progress, commerce and the destruction of nature into the story that are still incredibly relevant.
You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you're ready to die, it comes to you - that there's nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain't done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you're the only one that knows the secret; only then it's too late. You're too old.
These are hard lessons to learn, but what luck that Williams is back to instruct us. Anyone who enjoyed Stoner should find time for Butcher's Crossing as well.
Brian Davey is an editorial assistant with Irish Pages. He lives in London and has in the past worked in Foyles. You can follow him on Twitter: @b_davey