Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Stoner," by John Williams

When I was in Europe for a conference this past summer, John, a UK colleague at the conference, and I talked about books one night over dinner. He raved about a novel titled “Stoner” (Vintage, 2012) by the American writer John Williams. (No, not that kind of a stoner; Stoner is the name of the main character.) Soon after, when I was still traveling in Europe, I saw the book in a bookstore, and decided to buy it on John’s recommendation. I also looked up reviews, and found that others were also raving about it, and that it was considered a rediscovered gem. When it was originally published in 1965, only 2000 copies were sold; then it was pretty much forgotten. The author died in 1994; it is unfortunate that he didn’t live long enough to know that “Stoner” was republished by the New York Review of Books Classics in 2006 and that it has been so well received. I ended up not reading it in Europe, and it somehow got to the bottom of a stack of books on my shelf, but I finally read it a couple of weeks ago, and was very impressed. It is the story of William Stoner, who was born in 1891 and grew up poor and lonely on a farm in Missouri. As a teenager he discovered literature, went to college despite his extreme poverty, and eventually became a professor of English at the University of Missouri. The novel tells of his difficult marriage to a woman with mental health issues, and of department politics and other professional problems in his career. But throughout, Stoner did his best to be a good teacher, to publish, to take care of his wife and his dear daughter, and to live a good life. He was an honorable man. He did have a brief love affair, but gave it up to preserve his marriage and career. His life was not dramatic, but it was admirable. The novel has a sort of Sinclair Lewis style realism, plainness and simplicity. However, this not-very-exciting plot summary cannot capture the compelling nature of this quiet but somehow riveting novel. I highly recommend it.

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