From what I've gathered John Williams wrote four books during the course of his life. Two of them, Stoner and Butchers Crossing, have been reissued by the New Review of Books Classics series. Although different in style and plot, both works center on the inability of male protagonists to achieve happiness through their ideals in an unrelenting, brutal world, which puts them in a better position then the secondary characters—-especially the female ones-- who Williams for the most part treats as inherently alienated without the prospect of achieving any ideals or happiness.
Stoner is primarily a book about alienation. It tells the life of a low grade Literature professor in a small liberal arts college in Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. We see how the main character, John Stoner, holds onto his love of learning through the travails of a life that sees him alienated from his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his job.
Although, some may read Stoner as championing the humanist ideal of learning, Williams actually complicates this by treating Stoner’s attitude toward literature, and the institution of university, as a refuge from the alienating forces of the ‘real’ world. A theme which is all too dated in our time with the privatization, rationalization and factoryialization of the university. (Just the fact that Stoner get tenure on the basis of publishing one book is anachronistic enough).
While I suspect this story will have little appeal to the readers of the Bumpidee reader, I highly recommend it. Williams fashions a riveting and affecting tale while achieving a perfect union of style, content and structure throughout with taught, well-crafted sentences and flawless transitions from one chapter to the next.
Butchers Crossing, on the other hand, is more ambitious in scope, structure and style. Williams uses the western genre to convey the themes of the quashing of youthful idealism, the elective affinity between the romantic idealization of nature and the domination of nature and the precarious and ruinous affect capitalism has upon human life.
Williams tells the story of a naïve Harvard student, who following his interpretation of Emerson goes west to live a life of self-reliance. Williams work incisively depicts how this ideal functioned in the context of manifest destiny and American capitalist imperialist expansion. To live his Emersonian ideal the youth funds a buffalo hunting party. Without ruining the plot the party slaughter an obscene and unnecessary amount of buffalo, fall prey to the cruelty of nature and get fucked over by the precariousness of the market. While many would end such a disillusioning narrative as one of realization—or the even more trite coming of age story—Williams leaves his characters traumatized, yet somehow still determined to carry on. A predicament, that sadly persists, which is why I recommend this excellent and illuminating work.