THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017


John Williams (1922-1994) wrote four novels.  None of them, however, sold many copies during his lifetime.  I remember some years ago seeing and scanning stories about him with headlines such as The Best Writer You Never Heard Of, or something similar.  And that certainly applied to me.  I had never heard of him, and I couldn't read his books because they were out of print.  In fact, although there were critics who praised his work, his books sold few copies before disappearing -- literally in some cases -- into the trash bin of history.

He received his greatest, albeit fleeting, publicity when his epistolary novel set in Ancient Rome, Augustus, won the National Book Award in 1973. But it didn't sell many copies either.

Fast forward to 2013:

A dramatic change occurred when the New York Review of Books (NYRB) re-issued Stoner, a novel about a quiet, unassuming, and, in many ways, forgettable professor teaching literature at the University of Missouri, which had been originally published in 1965.

Suddenly, everyone had heard of John Williams, at least those who read books.  He had become an overnight success -- almost a half-century after he had written the book -- and almost two decades after his death.

A year later, NYRB re-issued Augustus.

However, these were not the first Williams novels to be re-issued by NYRB.  The first was Butcher's Crossing, originally published in 1960, and re-issued by NYRB in 2007.  It had not attracted the readership that Stoner did six years later, but it benefited from the popularity of that novel, even to the point that Butcher's Crossing is now in development as a movie.

The Butcher's Crossing title refers to a rag-tag collection of shacks and shanties located on the Kansas prairie.  In the late 1870's, its primary commercial activity is the collection and shipment of buffalo hides to the east.  

Will Andrews, a young Bostonian imbued with the teachings of Emerson and Thoreau, drops out of Harvard College and travels west in a quest for -- well, for something that he can't quite explain -- but obviously includes a search for self -- a self that he might discover in Nature.

At the gate of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish.  The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he takes into these precincts.  Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes.  Here we find Nature to be the circumstances which dwarfs every other circumstance, and judges like a god all men that come to her. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

In some ways Andrews pursues a course opposite to that of Stoner; while Stoner deserted nature (the farm) for academia, Andrews deserts academia for nature.

Eventually, because he wants to take part in a buffalo hunt (something that neither Emerson nor Thoreau would have approved of), and because he had some money, Andrews agrees to bankroll a hunt led by an experienced hunter named Miller.  To assist the enterprise Miller hires Charley Hoge, a one-handed, whiskey-swilling, Bible-thumper to serve as teamster and camp cook and Schneider, an experienced skinner.  Young Andrews principal job will be to assist Schneider, even though he knows nothing about skinning animals, but is expected to learn.

I'm not going to divulge any more of the plot, because I don't want to be guilty of spoilers and because it's too damn difficult to do anyway.  But I will tell you that the passage across the arid plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado almost ends the hunt even before the hunters arrive in the Colorado Rockies where Miller is certain a huge buffalo herd will be found in a valley that he visited years before.

The hunters find the herd but they tarry too long in the Rockies and have to spend the winter there.  Winter in the Rockies means snow -- a lot of it -- and as a result the hunters find themselves engaging in another battle of survival against the forces of nature.

Just as it is impossible to explain in a brief summary why Stoner is such a great novel, so it is with Butcher's Crossing.  It is a western novel.  No, that's not quite right.  It is a novel set in the west.  Despite the fact that the story is populated by many stock characters -- even the prostitute with the requisite heart of gold -- they are offset by a pared down, austere, but clear and vivid prose that contains no gimmicks or grammatical games.

Joanne Greenberg, who is best known for her book I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, knew Williams and admired his talent long before most of the rest of us even had a clue.  She was quoted as saying that Williams "wrote like a Shaker would ski -- without a wasted motion." Perfect; I wish I had thought of that.

Anyone looking to read a traditional western in the mainstream of the genre should look elsewhere.  This is a book that shares more in common with Herman Melville's Moby Dick than anything ever written by Louis L'Amour.  If, on the other hand, you are an admirer of Cormac McCarthy, than this book would likely appeal to you.

"What will you do now, Mr. McDonald?" Andrews asked; his voice soft.

"Do?"  McDonald straightened on the bed.  "Why, I'm going to do what Miller said I should do; I'm going to get out of this country.  I'm going back to St. Louis, maybe back to Boston, maybe even to New York. You can't deal with this country as long as you're in it; it's too big, and empty, and it lets the lies come into you.  You have to get away from it before you can handle it.  And no more dreams; I take what I can get when I can get it, and worry about nothing else."

Buffalo (bison) skulls to be ground up for fertilizer

40,000 buffalo hides awaiting shipment from Dodge City, Kansas

[Butcher's Crossing] is a novel that turns upside down the expectations of the genre -- and goes to war with a century of American triumphalism, a century of rejuvenation through violence, a century of senseless slaughter. -- John Plotz, The Guardian

Harsh and relentless yet muted in tone, Butcher's Crossing paved the way for Cormac McCarthy.  It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western. -- The New York Times

The finest western ever written. -- Oakley Hall, author of Warlock

'The West' never existed.  It's a dream of 'the East.' -- John Williams