It would be great if I could adequately describe what makes John Williams’s writing so readable, rich and compelling, but I don’t think I can do it. It’s a combination of a clear storytelling drive, simplicity, a careful perfectionist attention to detail, and a brutally honest approach to character. I’m trying to trace the connections in style and craft between his magnificent academic novel, Stoner, and this work of Western Realism, Butcher’s Crossing, that I just read. Butcher’s Crossing is more familiar, less shocking and astonishing than Stoner, but it’s a very fine book, an outstanding exemplar of the Western genre. One thing that Stoner and BC share, perhaps, is that they both take genres that are prone to comedy and lightness and irony, in good ways and bad, along with cheap effects, and they approach them with dead seriousness. We think of academic and school novels through the comic prism of Lucky Jim and Straight Man and the warm, touching simplicity of Goodbye Mr. Chips. Stoner shows a different side of a long, relatively thankless, grinding academic life and it’s a 20th century panorama that has some modern mores and touches, but it’s quite stern and classical. Butcher’s Crossing is similarly stern and it’s more brutal. It’s an extremely effective and engaging book. I don’t know much about the genre and I think I’ve only read All the Pretty Horses and Shane in relatively recent memory, and nothing before that. I don’t even know what the “higher” side of the genre might be–is it Larry McMurtry? Wallace Stegner? Elmore Leonard? It’ll be fun to do some research and to try to learn about good books I don’t know, but I’m not sure I’ll pursue this vein with any reading. My guess, though, is that Butcher’s Crossing probably belongs on most lists of outstanding Western fiction. It’s a well-written, fine novel with a good story, one that easily holds its own outside of genre distinctions.
The story is mostly about man and his relationship to nature, as it leaves aside the standard conflicts of gunfighters and card games and personal melodramas. The hero is a young man who has just finished three years at Harvard College, Andrews, who comes west with a generous stake and a desire to “put some of Mr. Emerson’s principles into action.” Andrews is drawn powerfully to the vast expanse of the West, seeking experiences and visions of transcendence and hoping to breathe life into his spirit by joining with nature.
The plot and characters are closely reminiscent of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, with a buffalo hunt substituted for gold prospecting. Andrews’s role as the main character is supplanted by the brooding figure of Miller, a sort of Ahab of buffalo hunters. Miller has kept the secret of a hidden valley for many years, an ideal hunting ground, as the herds and easy hunts and slaughter in the prairies of Kansas are ending. Miller has been waiting for an eager neophyte with gumption, like Andrews, to come along and finance the hunt.
There are all sorts of amazing characters, incidents and set piece sequences in this rich novel. The first extended sequence tracks the hunting party as they set out into territory that Miller only half-remembers, their water supply uncertain. The struggles of oxen, horses, and men as they fail to find water are carefully described and keenly felt. And the novel has a number of similar outstanding sequences.
Butcher’s Crossing is more than worthy of another post breaking down its characters and plot points more carefully. Don’t read that one; don’t spoil it. If you enjoyed Stoner just give BC a read–it went really quickly for me–and then let’s think about it and discuss it. This book is both very much like Stoner and very different at the same time, and it’s a strong American fiction title.