Tuesday, January 31, 2012

REVIEW: Stoner, by John Williams

Stoner, by John Williams. Published 2006 by NYRB Editions.

The other day I was looking for what to read next and I remembered that I had this book Stoner on my shelf, and that it had been there for a while. I also remembered that a couple of my good book pals (Matt of A Guy's Moleskine Notebook and bookseller extraordinaire Michele Filgate) had read it and really enjoyed it, so I decided to pull it down and give it a try. A day and a half later I was done with this remarkable little book.

Stoner reads like a fictional biography of one William Stoner, born dirt-poor on a hardscrabble farm in Missouri. His parents send him to college to study agriculture and agronomy, but he becomes enchanted by literature and decides to abandon the farming life for an academic one. He marries a young woman from a well-off family but the marriage founders; he has a daughter, but her life is a sad replay of her parents'. His career never really takes off; his stubbornness and his love, late in life, for a fellow instructor doom whatever modest ambitions he may have had.

So the book is definitely kind of a downer (Stoner reminds me of Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's depressing The House of Mirth, a woman not quite capable of the ordinariness she covets) it's also a luminous and moving novel about one man's life, albeit a quiet life filled with a steady stream of disappointments. What saves the book for me, and the reason I'm going to recommend it to readers of literary fiction, is that incredibly beautiful writing. His love affair with Katherine Driscoll represents the high point of his life:
In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being, to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity, he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented an modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.
Intelligence and heart are what characterize this lovely little novel. Equally beautiful passages can be found elsewhere, particularly about the other love of his life, his daughter Grace, ruined by her mother's anger and Stoner's own powerlessness over his wife. The story is very sad, no doubt, but it's also very beautiful and Williams' prose will hold your heart tight all the way to the end.

Rating: BUY
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FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.