Stoner by John Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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.
View all my reviews