Unassuming word of mouth sensations are somewhat rare. John William’s Stoner, which has sold a good many thousand copies this year and will inevitably sell more in the weeks around the festive season, is the kind of quiet, unassuming book you expect to be treasured by the literate few. There are no explosions. No murders. Hardly any crime at all. What’s more, it’s a book set in a university, that lays out its unassuming story arc on the first page and treads gently through the life of a man, an unformed man to begin with, who becomes more formed whilst remaining malleable to a certain extent as the pages and the years go by.
William Stoner, the eponymous hero of Williams’ third book, is according to John McGahern’s introduction, the most personal of his four novels, the one that grew most closely out of Williams’ own life as a college professor (a life, it should be said, that produced four novels, each – according to McGahern – of which ‘could pass for the work of four different writers’), a novel he described as ‘an escape into reality’, a novel according to Julian Barnes’ recent piece in the Guardian, he had high hopes for, albeit high hopes tempered by the usual writerly expectation for little.
Readers who come to the novel in the wake of this word of mouth may in the first instance perhaps expect a book like, say, TC Boyle’s Budding Prospects, only to be wrongfooted slightly by the realisation that Stoner is the central protagonist’s surname. It does not take long though for the quiet sturdy power of the novel to push all expectations to one side. As we watch Stoner as a boy, on his parents’ farm, working hard in the fields, alongside his father, a world of poverty, dignity and hard work, the writing asserts itself, the world outside of the book falls away, you loiter in Stoner’s footsteps, you listen to the creak of his father’s bones, you smell the dirt, feel the ache, engage from the heart.
‘It was a lonely household, of which he was an only child, and it was bound together by the necessity of its toil. In the evenings, the three of them sat in the small kitchen lighted by a single kerosene lamp, staring into the yellow flame; often during the hour or so between supper and bed, the only sound that could be heard was the weary movement of a body in a straight chair and the soft creak of a timber giving a little beneath the age of the house.’
Stoner goes to university at his father’s behest to learn more of agriculture, to see what can be learned to make the life of the farm turn just a little bit easier – but quickly enough the life of the university grips him – books grip him (and maybe just maybe, the way in which books grip Stoner partially explains what has lead readers to take this book to their collective busoms, for Stoner is a reader, a man for whom books provide solace, a man who knows a book is reliable when people are not) – and Stoner disappoints those around him, choosing his own path, even as his course is set, disappointment and advancement walking hand in hand, one step forward, sometimes two steps back, every triumph couched in some kind of unhappiness, a gradual diminishing of life’s joys, a rapidly refining circle within which Stoner still, somehow, manages to make his way and find joy.
Obviously there have been comparisons with Richard Yates, another writer who only found posthumous success, and there are elements of Stoner – particularly his marriage to Edith – that resemble Revolutionary Road. But there are still other elements of Stoner that do not resemble Yates at all. The long standing spat between Stoner and one of his colleagues (that is never, beautifully, fully explained), for instance; the sweet, short-lived love affair he experiences (which reminded this reader of 1984); the heartfelt relationship that exists between Stoner and his daughter, eventually soured as a result of Edith’s involvement. All of these are great moments, pearls on a string of many such pearls. The climax of the novel also manages somehow to do in a half dozen pages what Paul Harding’s Tinkers took a couple of hundred pages over (although, again, looking at Williams and Harding you can’t help but wonder if the Stoner audience will catch up with Tinkers in maybe forty years time). Readers of Kent Haruf will also recognise a humane tenderness at work (and the comparison is a strong one: readers of Williams will like Haruf, readers of Haruf will like Williams).
In some ways there is a stark simplicity to proceedings (Stoner is a man who considers his own happiness, a man who knows when he is happy and when he is not, and there are passages in the novel that realise events in much the same way that Roddy Doyle did in his earlier novels); in others, a rich and ripe complexity (the way in which Stoner’s life proceeds, for example, when Edith learns of his affair, and life goes on, as it did before, arguably better for a short time, all of the cards laid out, honesty briefly paraded as a possible way of living). If you were to ask what in particular made the book so rewarding, it may be initially difficult to pinpoint precisely. The love of books, the sad beauty of a disappointed life, the realistic portrayal of a long marriage, the depth and thoughtfulness of Stoner himself, the grounding reality of work – all of these things, perhaps, and a dozen others.
Does it warrant its sales and its success? Most certainly. Is it pleasing to know that a writer and a book can find its audience, even though it may take time? Yes, even as it is a shame that, John Toole-like, he didn’t really find that in life. Do I think you would like it? Quite possibly the most important question of all. Yes. Yes I think you would like it. Whoever you are. Because you got this far. Because, if you’ve yet to dabble, you can hear it calling to you. Because, every once in a while, a book comes along that the chattering classes chatter about that warrants the chattering.
Any Cop?: A resounding (yet whispered) yes. Treat yourself.