Wednesday, June 12, 2013
To get one thing out of the way at once: no, this book has absolutely nothing to do with drugs. It’s likely you haven’t heard about Stoner even though 1) The New York Times Book Review said it was “something rarer than a great novel—it is a perfect novel” 2) It has nearly 4,000 reviews on Goodreads with an average rating of 4.3/5, and 3) Tom Hanks gave it a shout-out as a favourite read in a recent Time magazine article, saying that “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.” There’s no coordinated promotional tsunami building around the novel, but anyone with antennae reaching into the book world over the last little while has been picking up vibrations about it from a hundred different corners.
Written in 1965 and re-released by the New York Review of Books in 2003, John Williams’s novel tells the story of William Stoner, a poverty-stricken Missouri farm boy born at the end of the nineteenth century. Hemmed in by circumstances, Stoner expects to follow in his parents’ soil-stained footsteps, but when he goes to university for training in agriculture he unexpectedly falls in love with literature and eventually ends up as an English professor. But against this rags-to-robes narrative Williams presents the various vicissitudes Stoner is subject to—a tragically unhappy marriage, the death of friends and students in two world wars, an ill-fated love affair, and the grinding battle of academic politics.
I’ve been immersed in a bunch of contemporary writers lately, particularly David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolaño, so Stoner’s spare, traditional narrative style seems defiant, almost radical to me. After all, Williams was writing at the same time that Pynchon, Fowles, and Vonnegut were exploding the boundaries of the novel’s structure and style, and as a professor of English himself at the University of Denver and a National Book Award-winning author, he must have been aware of the daring literary experimentalism of his time. But Williams demonstrates the strengths of those older storytelling techniques, using his all-knowing narrator to dig deep into the psychology of his protagonist and examine his responses to the sometimes insurmountable barriers life presents to him.
And perhaps there is something radical after all in Williams’s choice of a protagonist who is so unassuming, whose heroism in the face of crises that are mundane and yet profoundly damaging is so restrained and unregarded that only Stoner and the reader really know about it—and maybe only the reader at that, since Stoner hardly regards himself as remarkable in any way. In Middlemarch George Eliot famously wrote that “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Given that most of us live lives where our virtues, happiness, and suffering aren’t the stuff of big-screen blockbusters, it’s especially nourishing to read a story about a person who makes his way through a life of quiet desperation by drawing on a hidden bounty of quiet courage.