31 March 2011

Stoner (John Williams)

I've been surrounded by raves for Stoner since someone (I do not remember who, sorry) recommended it to the lovely, lovely Bookavore sometime last year and she became a relentless evangelist for it. Yes: it is simple and tender, and unique in its being a sympathetic portrait of an ordinary Midwesterner. (Whereas your average "flyover"-set book is all about the Canker at the Core of America and whatnot...*cough* Sinclair Lewis *cough* Franzen...with no representation of the world I grew up in or the virtues thereof.)

Here is what happens in this book: In 1910, William Stoner leaves his father's farm for the University of Missouri, ostensibly to study agriculture; but he falls in love with English literature and steadily pursues a Ph.D., going on to teach at his alma mater until his death. He is never more than an assistant professor. His marriage is an immediate failure, his academic career thwarted by vicious intradepartmental politics, and he admits to only sometimes being a good teacher. He has a love affair that dissolves under threat of scandal. His wife sabotages his relationship with his daughter, who eventually escapes through unwed pregnancy and alcoholism. It's all very sad...but in an everyday way, meaning so little in the grand scheme. At his daughter's hurried, defeated wedding in December 1941, he
was gripped by what he could think of only as a numbness, though he knew it was a feeling compounded of emotions so deep and intense that they could not be acknowledged because they could not be lived with. It was the force of a public tragedy he felt, a horror and a woe so all-pervasive that private tragedies and personal misfortunes were removed to another state of being, yet were intensified by the very vastness in which they took place, as the poignancy of a lone grave might be intensified by a great desert surrounding it.
And yet, while you won't put down the book humming the theme song (to borrow a phrase of my father's), there is so much love in its pages--not between Stoner and his wife, or even his lover, but between the author and the man whose quiet life he chronicles. Williams communicates the pain and small triumphs of his character plainly and with little intrusion, but with infinite tenderness, communicated powerfully to the reader. Let's make it a classic, shall we? (It can replace Main Street. God, I loathed that book--never read an author with such contempt for his characters.)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Muse at Highway Speeds by http://museathighwayspeeds.blogspot.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.