“Stoner” by John Edward Williams (A Review)

Williams, J. (1965). Stoner. New York, NY: New York Review of Books.

Back in the Good Ol’ Days, we had values. Songs had ‘meaning!’ We didn’t listen to crap like Fergie’s “My Humps,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” or Kelis’s “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard.” Our songs had lyrics with substance and gravitas  like The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” baby. There’s not a day that passes when I don’t thank the Buddha that I wasn’t born in some obscene year like 1990! So, it’s only because I was a child of the 60s that I happened upon the novel, Stoner.

Let’s begin by saying that it isn’t, at all, what you might think it’s about. I mean, we all know what a ‘stoner’ is; so, when I discovered this work featured at my local independent bookseller’s establishment, I wasn’t even sure I was going to read it! But I did wonder, as I picked up the book to examine it, why the man depicted on the cover was wearing a suit from the late 1800s. Actually, “Stoner” is the surname of the main character in the book of the same name. And amazingly, the book was originally published in 1965, the decade of my birth, and then simply lost in the shuffle, forgotten, until just recently  this  century! Just as interesting are the rumors regarding Professor John Edward Williams,’ death. I’d been told, more than once, that he’d committed suicide. Truth be told, he died in bed, quite happily enough, leaving behind a wife, family, and not a few friends.

A small placard affixed to the front of the bookstore copy said, simply, “The best book I’ve ever read!” One of the bookstore staff warned me that it wasn’t a flashy, exciting read, but more of a deep, introspective, examination of a rather unremarkable man’s life. In many ways, she was correct; but I beg to differ regarding ‘excitement.’ This could be the undergraduate English major in me, but I was shaken, and moved, to my core. I could easily have read the book in one sitting, but instead, decisively closed the cover and laid it down, unwillingly, someplace out-of-the-way, for brief intervals over a period of three days.  I felt compelled to savor what I’d read, and delay what I knew would be the final, painful end of a rare reading experience. Not since Hermann Hesse’s “Siddartha” (1922) have I felt this way about a work. And like Hesse, it’s quite obvious that John Edward Williams was, in his own fashion, a ‘spiritual’ man.

From the first page of  Stoner, author John Williams lets you know that William Stoner, the subject of this work, is no one special.  By the middle of that first page, we know that William Stoner was a university instructor who “never rose above the rank of assistant,” and was barely remembered by any student who’d ever taken one of his courses. In fact, after his death, it was noted that his colleagues didn’t think much of him, either. Williams’ lack of concern in developing some type of hook to pull the reader in from the start could be the reason why this work simply disappeared into the dustbin for the next 50 years or so. I won’t lie: it did occur to me to lay claim to my “within ten days and good condition” right to refund after reading that first paragraph. Nonetheless, I turned the page, and by page 9, I just knew I was in for one of the rare experiences of my life. I had to find out more about this poor boy who’d escaped the impoverished, illiterate, threadbare existence of a Missouri farm, where his parents eked out a subsistence, only because of an almost freakish opportunity to receive a university education.

Prior to leaving the farm to attend classes, young Stoner had known nothing of next-door neighbors, socializing, fine clothes, reading for pleasure, or the carelessness of youth. His parents were the stereotypical hard-bitten, illiterate, inarticulate poor dirt farmers who had given up the vernacular of light conversation, endearments, or even complaining. Life was simply hard, and one did what one had to do to get through it. So, the clueless young Stoner builds his adult life on a foundation of nothing and what little romance he is able to extract from Medieval English literature and the rarely-sought perspective of a few, not-so-close friends. But Stoner is far from ignorant. And somewhere within his hardscrabble life, he learns to love and to appreciate what beauty he can find along the way.

During Stoner’s first year as a student in the College of Agriculture at this fictitious University of Missouri (Williams, himself, taught at the University of Missouri), Stoner is awed by university life, but his passion to continue is exceeded only by his fear of returning to the farm where very little, if anything, ever grew. Then, near the end of page 9, we learn: “It was not until he returned for his second year that William Stoner learned why he had come to college.” Soon after, Stoner would leave the College of Agriculture to become, of all things, an English major, thus leaving his parents to think he’d soon be returning to run the family “business.” Williams, in his spare narration of Stoner, simply states: “In the summer he returned again to his parents’ farm and helped his father with the crops and did not mention his work at the University.” And the wonder and pathos of it all is that Stoner did not have to say anything because it never would have occurred to his parents to ask him how ‘things’ were going. Nonetheless, he changed and grew. He learns Greek and Latin, within the space of a year, well enough to read simple texts. And we learn that “Sometimes he thought of himself as he had been a few years before and was astonished by the memory of that strange figure, brown and passive as the earth from which it had emerged.”

Stoner’s career would encompass America’s two World Wars, and Williams provides some rare insights, through his characters, into how academics viewed conscription, volunteering, and the crushing effect these wars had on the very people and things for which American warriors fought, such as art, literature, and the value of a general education. In fact, one character is driven to madness. But one of the most confounding aspects of the book is Stoner’s marriage. If the expression, “thinking with his little head instead of his big one” had not yet been coined in the 1960s, it should have been. Stoner’s choice for a life mate, fairly early in his marriage, sets in motion a number of events, so inexpressibly tragic, but so easily avoidable with just a little thought, that one finds it impossible to keep one’s mouth from hanging open for much of the book. Nonetheless, and much to my amazement, Williams still manages to keep the tone of Stoner, mundane, dispassionate, and even.

Throughout Stoner’s tragic and remarkably unremarkable life, it is his career, as a university instructor, not professor, that keeps him sane and solid. Even after he realizes that despite his great love of literature, and respect and passion for education, that he is most definitely not a good instructor, he continues to plod on with a mindfulness most students of meditation would envy. And that mindfulness and dedication would carry him through several departmental scandals, controversies, and the ugliness of faculty politics. Certainly, it is in Stoner’s struggles to come to terms with the mess of his life, and the tragic nature of the little beauty he manages to experience, that reveals the aforementioned spirituality I found in Williams’ writing. All along the way, Stoner remains alert to the gifts ‘life’ gives him, however bare and paltry they might seem to anyone living life more “large.”

Once, Stoner experiences “…an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words…” Later, Stoner discovers the emptiness of “learning,” but still appreciates the learning that leads him to this chilling discovery. And at a fairly late stage in his life, despite being married, he finally learns of true love, searing sex, and the staggering price he must pay for that knowledge. Near the end of his life, which ended long before his career, Williams says of Stoner, “He seldom thought of the past or the future, or of the disappointments and joys of either; he concentrated all the energies of which he was capable upon the moment of his work and hoped that he was at last defined by what he did.” Oh, reader! Does that not sound like some type of meditation to you?

Somehow, through a work thoroughly unremarkable in the areas of drama, humor, or much in the way of any character’s internal life (though Williams’ narration could fool one into thinking that Stoner had much more in the way of an internal life than was actually depicted), the author manages to create a character of such warmth, depth, dignity, magnitude and quiet, passionate desperation that there can be no question, by the end of this novel, that greatness can be found, and fostered, in the most unremarkable of remarkable places.

This is a work that will, one day, be read by every “educated” person. It deserves to be read, and murdered by, every first-year college student. And I, for one, will never be the same for reading it. Neither will you.



Related Reading:

John Williams’ Stoner: The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of by Tim Kreider from The New Yorker

Stoner by John Williams from bookemstevo