December 3, 2013

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing

Posted in NYRB Classics, Williams John at 8:00 am by John Self

John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner was the sleeper hit of 2013. A groundswell of word-of-mouth success in some European countries early this year coincided with the reissue of the book in the UK by Vintage Classics in December 2012 (having previously been published by NYRB Classics in 2006), and soon every UK newspaper wanted a piece of the action too. Attention is now beginning to turn to his other novels. This one was brought to us again by NYRB Classics in 2007, and next year it will be reissued, unappealingly emblazoned, in the UK.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Vintage Classics, UK, 2014)

Butcher’s Crossing (1960) was Williams’s second novel, though he disowned the first, Nothing But the Night (1948), written in his mid-20s, so we might consider this to be his first mature work. It is written in a similar quiet style to Stoner, slips down just as delightfully, and has a likeminded lack of consolation. In subject, it is I suppose a western – check out that Panther Books edition from 1963, below – though I’m unsure exactly how to define that. It has men in battle: against the landscape, against animals and against one another.

Will Andrews is the reader’s eyes. He’s a 23-year-old Harvard dropout who has come west to find “his unalterable self”, and something related that he struggles to define: a “wildness”, or “a freedom and a goodness”, and in reality his quest may be more about evading than finding. It’s the 1870s, and he comes to Butcher’s Crossing in Kansas, not much more than “six rough frame buildings bisected by a narrow dirt street.” Encouraged by news of the burgeoning buffalo hide economy, and of one resident’s confident prediction that “this town’s going to be something two, three years from now,” he smooth-talks – and pays – his way onto a team of buffalo hunters, led by the experienced Miller.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (NYRB Classics, 2007)

What follows is pretty gripping, even as it takes its time. Miller takes on the role of a Captain Ahab, a driven, possibly demented figure who is determined to complete his quest whatever the outcome, and who drives the fate of the other, weaker, characters. The story is full of strong and immersive physical descriptions – a snowstorm, the skinning of buffalo, a journey across a treacherous river. At these times, Williams manages to enter some primitive part of the reader’s brain, to bypass reason, to grasp the reader by the tailbone and shake. This is impressive because the quietness of Williams’s style means that his story, horrifying though it is in places, lacks the sort of apocalyptic feel that Cormac McCarthy can whistle up. But it has a restrained power of its own.

During the journey, Andrews finds himself changing – “he thought at times that he was moving into a new body” – and the men on the hunt generally find that “rather than being brought closer together by their isolation, they were thrust apart.” The struggles through the journey are thrown cleverly into relief when the men discover near the story’s end that weather and landscape are not the only elements they cannot control, but larger challenges created by the mass of mankind – forces we are all prey to – may be even more difficult to surmount.

John Williams: Butcher's Crossing (Panther Books, 1963)

Along with Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing might cement Williams’s reputation as a man who wrote mostly about men. You could say the same about James Salter or William Golding, but when reading Butcher’s Crossing, I kept thinking about the accusations of misogyny laid against Stoner by writers and critics such as Elaine Showalter, Linda Grant and David Baddiel. Does Butcher’s Crossing fare any better? It’s not a good start to see that there are only two female characters in the book and both are, in the language of the men, “whores”. We don’t expect satisfaction of the Bechdel test from a western, any more than we would from Melville’s sea stories, but it’s more disappointing that the main female character (it’s a stretch to call her that) is not much more than a convenient vessel for Will Andrews, with uninspiring dialogue to match. (“I wanted you the first time I saw you. Without you even touching me, or talking to me.”) Williams does put some well-intentioned but clunky words in Andrews’s head – “He saw her as a poor, ignorant victim of her time and place” – which hardly helps. No real defence to those charges here, then. There is, it is true, one scene where women are discussed other than as an adjunct to men. High in the mountains, the crew discusses that the best way to draw the stiffness out of the buffalo hide is to pour urine on it. “Woman piss is best,” says one. “But we’ll have to make do with what we got.”

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17 Comments »

  1. emma t said,

    i think from my reading of western American history (not professionally, but nonetheless a lot) that at least 90% of the women in the wild west were ‘whores’; there just wasn’t much space for them to be there otherwise….

  2. Would it really be a stronger novel if there was some caring, unattractive woman who helped Butcher change? Perhaps, if the joint realisation at the end was that here was another factor that they couldn’t control.

  3. Thanks for the blog link. The Panther cover is great, not least for the quote “‘Excellent… Brilliant’ – BBC”. Trying to think of another instance of that, and failing. As for the book, well it’s begin Stoner in the pecking order, but I just know that Stoner is going to sit there on the shelf for months, if not years, until the time is right. It’s just not waving its hands wildly enough right now – and because I do want to read it, I haven’t read any reviews of it, to keep it ‘pure’, which means I haven’t really heard any of the reasons why it’s so good…

  4. John Self said,

    Part of the problem, Jonathan, is that it is almost impossible I think for anyone to come to Stoner now without inflated expectations. For that reason, probably best to wait until the fuss dies down.

  5. Mary K Gilbert said,

    Great review of a fantastic novel. The epic climax as they cross the river was thrillingly written. I managed to get my copy back recently after a two year tour of friends and family. I see his Roman novel has been republished but I’m not sure if this will be as good. Williams was certainly an eclectic writer.
    The Panther cover may have disappointed some readers particularly as the hero looks like Gary Cooper ( or Clint ) and might encourage people to think it’s an action western like Lonesome Dove.

  6. Scott W. said,

    Before your last paragraph about BC’s failure of the Bechdel test, I was asking myself, “Who is that woman on the Panther cover? They’re aren’t any women in Butchers Crossing!” Speaking of covers, the NYRB choice, with that romanticized, grandiose, idyllic vision of the limitless American West, seems one of their very best.

    • John Self said,

      The other beauty of the NYRB cover is that the painting is contemporaneous with the story – from the 1860s or 1870s.

  7. Having stomped around blogs for some years saying Williams is “the most overlooked American novelist in history”, I think I have to back off that now. He is certainly getting the attention he deserves (at least in your part of the world). And I think you have captured the threads the make Butcher’s Crossing a worthy read. I would add another one that perhaps has more impact with those of us who live in these former frontiers: most of the whites who came to these areas (as traders or settlers) were misfits of the first order, a label that I think applies to both MIller and Andrews, albeit in totally different ways.

    If I can mount a new promotional horse, I’d like to plead for more attention to Wallace Stegner — who was so overlooked even in the U.S. that the New York Times had not reviewed Angle of Repose when it won the Pulitzer Prize. And they called him William not Wallace when they finally got around to reviewing him. (One of Wallace’s students at Stanford was Tobias Wolff — might that spark your interest?)

    A very interesting difference between Stegner and Williams, at least for those critics who find Willliams’ portrayal of women disappointing, is that Stegner’s women are stronger than their husbands (certainly in Angle of Repose and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, my two favorites of his work). Those novels are set later than Butchers Crossing (but pre-Stoner) — but Stegner was fully aware that both sexes were involved in developing the American West. Stegner’s men may have had the sensibility, his women had the sense.

    • John Self said,

      Thanks Kevin. In fact I have read Crossing to Safety, though some years ago now, and I think it may be due a revisit. It was reissued in the UK this year and featured in Waterstones’ (the only remaining UK bookstore chain) book club, so he too may be getting belated justice.

    • Paul said,

      I absolutely second this, Kevin. I’m amazed that more people haven’t read Angle Of Repose and I just finished reading Crossing To Safety last month. I think both are masterpieces, and I’m not using that word lightly.

  8. mistersoto said,

    Just started out on Stoner and am really enjoying it, in light of all the success and attention that the novels are receiving I do hope that his poetry will also get a reprint, as his poetry seems so evident in the prose that I’ve read it would be great to have the opportunity to hear his poetical voice.

  9. Trevor said,

    I am excited to see you covering this, John. It’s one of my all-time favorites (I never know if I like it more or less than Stoner). American westward expansion has been so idealized, it’s sobering to get such an existential take.

    Kevin, I have a pile of Stegner’s books on my shelf thanks to you. I keep holding on to them as books I want to read on that perfect reading day, which has been elusive. I especially look forward to reading him now that you bring up his portrayal of women. I have struggled to come up with good arguments for why Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing aren’t misogynistic (such a strong term), but maybe seeing how Stegner dealt with the situation will make me see things differently.

    I do think that Francine’s role here is more complex than being a simple vessel for Andrews, though. In this tale of the awful exploitation that coincides with America’s western expansion, she is part of that exploitation. If at first she was attracted to Andrews, it was because he hadn’t yet been fully corrupted. But, of course, like the buffalo, she becomes an animal to be exploited, even to the point of being wasted. In a way, then, she is just a vessel for Andrews once he’s blank and corrupted, but I think we’re supposed to be aware that that’s not a good thing.

    • John Self said,

      Excellent points, Trevor. I didn’t see misogyny in Stoner myself, but I am very interested in the thoughts of people whose views I respect and who do sincerely see it. And as a result of that, it was in my mind when I was reading Butcher’s Crossing.

      As to Francine’s role, your explanation is convincing, though I must say that I didn’t see Andrews at the end as corrupted so much as disillusioned – or perhaps seeing more clearly than he had been when he came to Butcher’s Crossing. (He refers to his aims in going there as “vanity.”)

  10. Trevor said,

    I must say that I didn’t see Andrews at the end as corrupted so much as disillusioned – or perhaps seeing more clearly than he had been when he came to Butcher’s Crossing.

    I agree, John. That fine tunes it much better than I did. Certainly Andrews is disillusioned. Like Ishmael fretting over the whiteness of the whale, Andrews has been enlightened by the whiteness of all that snow. But maybe this particular brand of enlightenment also results in a kind of blindness that is, in a way, a form of corruption.

    For me, Andrews’ disillusionment led him (as it has led many people who settled the west in North America) to adopt a highly practical mode of being, a mode of being that lends itself well to exploitation at the expense of something that today I might consider more important. Like Miller, Andrews can now dispassionately kill and skin a buffalo. Like Miller, he can now just as dispassionately satisfy his sexual cravings. His experience was so brutal that he’s been wiped clean of any idealism he once harbored for getting his personal relationship with nature. At the same time, it’s made him virtually incapable of coming back to civil society.

    I’m just throwing this out there a bit half-formed still. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a few years now, which is why I place it in the Pantheon of American literature with something like Moby-Dick.

  11. […] thoughts on Stoner here — the equally good Butcher’s Crossing is reviewed by John here and Trevor at the Mookse and the Gripes here). And I am also a long-time fan of Wallace Stegner […]

  12. I think I’ll likely read this ahead of Stoner. The reason would be the attention Stoner now has, how do I approach an apparently misogynistic masterpiece? How do I read that just as me, without the weight of comment I’ve already read?

    Tricky to do without letting some time pass. This though is much more tempting, plus I like westerns (love that Panther cover, inaccurate as it may be).

    Perhaps at some point I should pair this with the Stegner. Kevin is very good on these big country novels, and with you, him and Trevor behind this one clearly it must be very good.

    Regarding women in the narrative, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem that a book only has male characters of consequence (or only female characters of consequence equally – I read a Rachel Cusk a while back which I don’t think had a single male character onscreen). Far better that than where a book has characters of a gender the writer can’t actually portray.

    To take an example from another field, Robert Silverberg is one of my favourite SF writers. He often has central female characters. Unfortunately, while Silverberg can write a good telepath or far future society he can’t write women worth a damn and his attitudes are not those a Guardian reader like myself is best comfortable with. His portrayal of women can make his books hard to read, I’d far rather he just wrote about men.

    A lack of women in the context of a western set in the wilds makes a certain sense. It’s not a narrative that obviously demands female characters. A novel set in a US college however, well, I’ll pop over to your Stoner review and ask there what you think about those criticisms.

  13. Hugh said,

    A young man called William grows discontented with his allotted place in the world and seeks a new challenge in an alien but romanticised environment. He makes his way, clumsily at first but ultimately with a degree of success, in that new environment. But then comes a period of disillusionment with what he finds there, followed eventually by a kind of acceptance and hope. Is this Stoner, or is it Butcher’s crossing?

    Misogyny? The books are not kind to women perhaps, but nor are they consciously unkind. They are of their time, a time when the male sensibility about women was still largely unreconstructed. Much better now, isn’t it boys and girls?


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