Sunday, February 7, 2016

Staff Review: Stoner by John Williams

A 2013 review of the novel Stoner in The New Yorker magazine was titled "The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of." I received a copy of the book for Christmas, read it right away, and was happy to see that the library owns it too.

Originally published in 1965, Stoner, by John Williams, sold an anemic 2000 copies and was quickly forgotten. Re-published in the new millenium, it was soon translated into French, becoming a best-seller across Europe. That enthusiasm traveled back to the U.S and Stoner now seems likely to be considered at least a minor classic.

The book's title refers to the main character, William Stoner, a pre-World War I-era farm boy whose joyless, wordless, utterly wrung-out parents wish him to prepare to assume the family farm by studying agriculture at the University of Missouri. In a literature class there one day, the heavens part and Stoner has an almost-religious epiphany, glimpsing the beauty and wisdom to be found in books. Abruptly changing majors, he ultimately earns a PhD, becomes a professor at the college, and teaches there for the rest of his life.

So far, so good, except that every other area of Stoner's life gradually becomes so difficult that the book can be tough to read. In his naïveté, he marries a cold young woman in haste and repents at leisure right up to his death bed. His beloved young daughter becomes estranged from him through the sadistic maneuverings of his wife. Cruel and peculiar college politics prevent his ever being promoted.

If the book is beginning to sound unrelievedly grim, it's not. It's a close-up look at an ordinary life. There are compensations and redemptions. Stoner is a sort of Everyman: fairly unremarkable, quiet, passive; one reviewer refers to him as the anti-Gatsby. But he's also genuinely and wonderfully free of neurosis and of so many less attractive human traits: envy, vindictiveness, anger, resentment, self-pity. The cover of the reissued book admirably portrays his character.

The beauty of this novel lies not only in the prose, where not a word seems wasted, but also in Stoner's day-to-day, clear-eyed sanity, the quiet and committed calm of the man as he navigates a typically turbulent life. It's as though his steadfast devotion to teaching and his unswerving faith in art allow him to exist relatively undisturbed above the fray. Stoner is a tribute to the literary life and to the sustaining power of an earnest vocation.

~Ann, Adult Services

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