With the rediscovery of the 1965 novel, Stoner or “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of” last year, the late John Williams has been propelled from relative obscurity to take his rightful place as one of the greatest American novelists of the last century.
Butcher’s Crossing couldn’t be further removed from Stoner in place or tone but deserves a place on every bookshelf alongside its now more famous cousin. Set on the American frontier of the 1870s, the novel tells the story of Will Andrews, Harvard student and disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a young man seeking adventure and the sublime on the Great Plains and mountains of the west. Alongside seasoned hunter Miller, Andrews embarks on a trek deep into the Colorado Rockies in search of Buffalo.
What follows is a subversion of the grand American narrative of the western that Cormac McCarthy would take up in his own later works. Williams goes to some laborious effort to present Andrews as the naïve dreamer of the East and the novel is quick to show his foolishness. The gruesome buffalo hunt that composes the novel’s climax, exposing the tragically overlooked genocide of the American Buffalo, couldn’t be a better choice of subject for debunking the myth of the Western.
Williams constructs a world that has a savage beauty in its starkness. Andrews and the band of hunters face death at the hands of nature countless times and it would be easy to argue nature is a malevolent force. In truth it’s not adversarial but indifferent, it cares no more for man than Miller does the buffalo he slaughters.
Williams’ novel shows life on the frontier as it truly was. It may not have the savage violence of McCarthy’s work but it stares the reality of the frontier square in the eye and doesn’t flinch.
Read our LSi review of Stoner here
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