A book with it’s own soundtrack by the author! I heard Willy Vlautin speak at Adelaide Writers Week a few years ago. He is an engaging speaker, I think a Vietnam Vet, and a band musician. That’s quite a combination of experiences for a still relatively young man. His book “The Free” was about a Vietnam vet, but I reviewed it as three stars “… I struggled at times to follow the narrative, which switches between reality and anaesthetic induced dreams.”
This book is really, really good. The arc of the story is straightforward – young man, Horace, who is part American Indian, part Irish, part Nevadan has been abandoned by his parents when young, and rescued by working on a remote sheep farm for a couple who we only ever know as Mr. and Mrs. Reece. He has a dream to be a boxing champion and, for some reason, be thought of as Mexican, because he is ashamed of his Indian heritage. The Reeces love him as their own son, but must let him go to follow his boxing dream. He is a good boxer, but is he a champion? The rest of the book follows his trajectory towards his goal.
Vlautin now writes clear, concise and deceptively simple prose. It is a gripping story and the relationship between Horace and the Reeces is heartbreaking.
Vlautin’s band, Richmond Fontaine, have a lovely alt-country album with the same title as the book, on which each track depicts a section of the book. Tailor made to be the soundtrack of a film of the book.
I found it a hard read. The story of a family (or are they) who have escaped a male dominated apocalyptic land to live alone on a remote island or peninsula. Interesting premise but, for me, not engaging, although I stayed with it to the end
An interesting insight into the mind of a grieving man, centred around his journey from Belfast to Sunderland at Christmas, to retrieve his (probably) mentally disturbed son and bring him home. Not that engaging for me, but engaging enough for me to finish it.
The New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”. Lest the title of the book misleads you, John Williams’ “Stoner” is not a book about a drug addled no-hoper. It’s set in the first half of the twentieth century in Missouri, where William Stoner is born into a dirt poor farming family. He has no ambition, no set path in life except to carry on back-breaking farm work like his father. His father decides that William should go to university to study agriculture, in the hope that their poor farm can become more than bare subsistence.
Early in his time at university, William Stoner takes an English elective, without any expectation, and is so inspired by his professor and by reading Shakespeare, that he decides to quit agriculture and study English full-time. The rest of his life is in academia, teaching English Literature in the same institution in which he studied. He meets and marries a woman at an academic function. They have a daughter. The marriage is unsuccessful, the daughter being used as a pawn in the marital conflict. His career flourishes, he has an affair with a colleague, his career founders, he dies a painful death of cancer. This is no Gatsby-like hero.
This all sounds fairly depressing, and in a way it is. But it is depressing in the same way that a Thomas Hardy novel is depressing – by being incredibly insightful into the twists and turns of fate that alter any human life and create both pain and joy for the characters. The writing is beautiful and the main characters are skilfully portrayed. The observations of academic politics and chicanery are acute.
I can imagine alternative critiques of this book. One would be that all the female characters are damaged, difficult and unsympathetically portrayed. Some reviewers have accused Williams of misogyny. The same criticism could be levelled at the unsympathetic portrayal of two disabled characters.
“Stoner” was initially published in 1965. It sold fewer than 2,000 copies and was out of print a year later. In 1972 Pocket Books put out a paperback version, reissued again in 1998 by the University of Arkansas Press and then in 2003 in paperback by Vintage and 2006 by New York Review Books Classics. French novelist Anna Gavalda translated Stoner in 2011, and it became Waterstones’ Book of the Year in Britain in 2012. It has now sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 21 countries. Williams died in 1994, probably before the book received the wide acclaim it now enjoys.