I had John Williams recommended to me by an avid reader whose tastes I respect greatly. I first read Augustus back in January. A wonderful book written in an epistolary style, and I knew I had to read more of Williams. The first thing that struck me was the radical departure in style from the earlier read – matter-of fact, and low key, much like its subject.
The subject is quite a departure as well, but of course much akin to Williams’ own surroundings in academia. Williams writes of William Stoner, a farm-boy from humble beginnings who almost by chance is bitten by a love for literature. Funny things happen on the way to Ag School.
In Augustus, events and decisions have far reaching consequences. In Stoner, the events and decisions also have far reaching consequences – but only in the smaller sphere of Stoner’s world. William Stoner is a serious, rather uncomfortable man, really a country boy at heart. But his mind binds him forever to a different life. For such a smart man, he’s rather unworldly and doesn’t always make the best decisions – though the decisions he does make are made without art or malice. His choice of wife turns out to be the huge disappointment, not to say mistake, of his life. Though a well drawn character (Edith), she’s a tough one to get a read on. The product of overly controlling parents, she’s a manic depressive personality who for all I know may have been an abused child. This is less than hinted at, but the thought did cross my mind. Stoner too, is the product of his parents. Stoner’s father scrimped and saved in order to send his son to the newly opened agriculture school at a Missouri University. And when William finally and belatedly tells his father of his decision not to return to the farm and take up the plough, his father surely was devastated. Yet, the decision was made. Each man is his own man, and what will be will be. Don’t look back. Stoner’s father took the turn of events with a stoicism and equanimity that is borne of the soil. It’s only later that we sense the origins of Stoner’s inherited inclination for acceptance. You can be buffeted by life, or can find grounding in new circumstances. It’s a gentle, quiet lesson.
Besides the two major characters here, there are several academic colleagues that are memorable. But it’s the place (a mid-Western University) that is unwrapped for all to see: the politics, the pressure to publish, the camaraderie and the envy. And there’s the dichotomy. It’s a world with all of the problems of the world at large, but it’s all played out on a smaller stage, cloaked in a warm blanket of deceiving security. This is Stoner’s world. And it was John Williams’ as well. Visit it.
Great book, and highly recommended.