Just about the second thing you learn about the writer John Williams, right after Stoner being the sleeper hit of 2013 as far as books are concerned, is that each of his four novels are as different one from the other as can be (to the extent that John McGahern, in the introduction to Stoner, suggests they could each be written by different people). And, to a certain extent, there is some truth to this, Butcher’s Crossing being a kind of Western when placed alongside Stoner‘s lyrical recreation of academic life. Starting Butcher’s Crossing with the expectation that it will be an altogether different experience to Stoner is interesting because when there are comparisons to be made (and there are), those comparisons hit all the harder, arguably with greater resonance than if you just took up the book without knowing anything about author or novel. (It is also worth adding, ahead of the glut of reviews that are going to feast on the point, that an author’s ability to write a ‘different’ kind of book isn’t altogether remarkable – TC Boyle, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Martin Amis, you could make quite a list of writers who are a dab hand at it).
To Butcher’s Crossing, however, a frontier town comprising wily business folk, hunters, prostitutes, blacksmiths and bar keeps. Will Andrews, a young man, as unformed in his way as William Stoner, rides in with a pocket of money and an old family connection to a local businessman called McDonald. Eschewing the offer of employment, Andrews hooks up with a hunter, Miller, who has quite the tale to tell – of a huge herd of buffalo, hidden away in a pass in the Colorado mountains – a tale largely derided by everyone else in Butcher’s Crossing, but a tale that grabs Andrew’s attention. Agreeing to fund the trip, Miller pairs them up with an ornery Bible-quoting alcoholic called Charlie Hoge and an experienced skinner called Schneider, and the four men head off. The meat of Butcher’s Crossing is taken up with the men’s journey, a tale of man against the elements, of man’s inhumanity to animal, of sacrifice, failure and, in a way, redemption. Along the way are stunning set pieces that may sound banal when laid out on the page (the men go days without water whilst crossing a stretch of desert) but come vividly alive in the reading. Williams is a subtle writer, a writer strong on piquant detail (one is left, for instance, with the picture of Miller shooting buffaloes for hour after hour, the black gun powder staining every part of his face apart from his teeth), a writer able to wrest torment from the midst of inactivity, whose characters thrum like power cables when cut off from civilisation for the duration of the winter.
Where Williams really comes into his own, however – and it is here that the book comes closest to the inner emotional world of Stoner – is in the reflective way that Andrews comes to view the experience of the hunt:
‘With a mild shock, he realized that the world outside of the wide flat winding park hemmed on all sides by sheer mountain, had faded away from him; he could not remember the mountain up which they had labored, or the expanse of plain over which they sweated and thirsted, or Butcher’s Crossing, which he had come into and left only weeks before. That world came to him fitfully and unclearly, as if hidden in a dream. He had been here in the high valley for all of that part of his life that mattered; and when he looked out upon it – its flatness and its yellow-greenness, its high walls of mountain wooded with the deep green of pine in which ran the flaming red-gold of turning aspen, its jutting rock and hillock, all roofed with the intense blue of the airless sky – it seemed that the contours of the place flowed beneath his eyes, that his very gaze shaped what he saw, and in turn gave his own existence form and place. He could not think of himself outside of where he was.’
There is a second search, then, folded within the larger search for the animals, as Andrews comes to discover who he is; or rather comes to start to look for who he is, and in the midst of the adventure, recognises something, something indefinable, something impossible to cling on to, something he espies in the midst of several pivotal moments, grasped and lost, something beyond his power to articulate:
‘It was something, he continued, speaking in broken phrases that did not say what he intended, it was something that he felt even in himself, from moment to moment, during the long trek across the plains, and in the kill of the buffalo at the instant the great animal shuddered and crashed to the ground, and in the hot smothering stench that came with the skinning, and in the vision of whiteness during the snowstorm, and in the trackless view in the aftermath of the storm.’
‘What did it mean?’ he asks himself, twice. It’s a question that resists answers and that compels the climax of the book, each of the surviving men, in their own way, finding a path to try and solve the conundrum created by the book.
The New York Times says the book ‘paved the way for Cormac McCarthy’ which is neither correct nor entirely helpful (Butcher’s Crossing has very little in common with anything McCarthy has written beyond the recounting of the ways in which a certain kind of man uses his hands, fashions tools, survives in inhospitable terrain); at the same time, it has been described as an existentialist western which is, I think, an attempt to give the reader of Butcher’s Crossing a sense that this Western is not ‘just’ a Western. Why originality is praised over a piece of art’s ability to assimilate and develop an established genre I’ll never know. As it is, Butcher’s Crossing is a good novel, a Western, yes (if that bothers you, although Heaven knows why it should), a novel that explores both the world it creates and the mind of an interesting central character. It is good enough that we don’t have to hogtie ourselves to unjust comparisons to other strikingly different writers (like McCarthy). Readers of Stoner will hopefully come to Butcher’s Crossing to get more of what Williams can provide: thoughtfulness, strong writing, powerful characterisation, involving drama and images and details that remain in the reader’s mind long after reading.
Any Cop?: It will be interesting to see if all the readers of Stoner follow Williams up into the Colorado mountains. They should no doubt. But will they?