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Stoner by John Williams

May 9, 2018

stoner

William Stoner, the eponymous protagonist of this novel, is born in 1891, the only child of stoic, hard-working Missouri farmers. Stoner observes his father’s “thick, callused fingers, into the cracks of which soil had penetrated so deeply that it could not be washed away,” and perhaps sees his own future.

Then a new school of agriculture opens at the University of Missouri, and Stoner heads off to be an educated farmer, the first of his family to attend college. But early on, in an undergraduate survey of literature, he has a transcendental moment during a reading of Shakespeare. It changes the course of his life, and he devotes his studies not to agriculture but literature. At the end of his undergraduate studies, a professor tells Stoner that he thinks Stoner would make an excellent teacher.

Life slides by in the way that life does. Events happen that seem minor at the time but reveal themselves to be a large part of the stories. Decisions made, mistakes, moments of awe. The Great War flares up in Europe and some friends go off to fight, others stay. He meets a woman with whom he has an awkward courtship, followed by marriage that flirts briefly with happiness before descending into bitter tedium. They have a daughter who Stoner adores, but who becomes a pawn in the conflict with his wife.

Stoner draws comparisons to the novels of Richard Yates, with its element of the alienation and loneliness of “normal” American lives, but I was also reminded of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie that elegantly and poetically captures the passage of time.

We are given, in Stoner’s first page, the full arc of his life. We are told that he entered the university in 1910, received a PhD and taught until his death in 1956.

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves of their careers.

So there it is. An undistinguished life. Yet, the beauty of Stoner is that there is beauty. It is full of mundane, everyday happenings. Office politics. A cold marriage. An unsuccessful publication. A few flames of happiness tamped out by those around him. It is story that could be about the dissatisfaction of life. In fact, in another passage, Stoner’s temperament is described perfectly by a college friend, who also makes a kind of prophecy:

Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own Midwestern Don Quijote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky. You’re bright enough…but you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’d fight the world. You’d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’d always expect the world to be something it wasn’t, something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.

Yet the story reveals within all this gloom beautiful moments that poke through as if in defiance. Small rebellious acts of happiness. These moments happen between people—I found the most moving the period when Stoner sets up his home office where his young daughter regularly sits with him, the two reading silently—and in the elegance of Williams’ prose: “Even at midmorning the branches of the dogwood trees glistened with hoarfrost, and the black vines that trailed up the great columns before Jesse Hall were rimmed with iridescent crystals that winked against the grayness.”

A New Yorker review articulates it perfectly in this description: “It is so essentially about the dissonance between life as seen—shabby and ignominious, a joke or waste—and life as experienced, shot through with shafts of love and meaning.” It is also about life as told, particularly in literature, and an intentional resistance to that tendency. Stoner is a book that mimics real life consciously and finds grace within it. Both Stoner the man and Stoner the book refuse to go big. There are no grand gestures, yet there is victory to be had.

Stoner’s whole life has been an act of devotion to that which he loves. Stoner’s quiet academic pursuits are perhaps small, perhaps not the most exciting pitch line for a novel, but are representative of what we all seek in life. Not an absolute victory, but a calling to which we can devote ourselves wholeheartedly, with love and immersion.

Stoner has, perhaps without realizing it, escaped his fate. “Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by his forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.”

It’s hard to describe why or how much I love this book, but I would put it on my list of favorites. The writing is fantastic, the insight into human nature so sharp, and Stoner so likable in his yeoman ethic and stoicism. Stoner sat on my shelf for several years and might have continued to do so were it not for my friend Sarah including it on her 2017 book list with high praise. So thank you, Sarah!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2018 12:49 pm

    This was a wonderful review!

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