"John Williams’s resurrection from the boneyard of obscurity"
February 20, 2015 8:03 AM   Subscribe

In 2010 Alan Prendergast wrote a long article about the life of novelist John Williams and how he was beginning, at long last, to find a sizable audience. How true that turned out to be, as Williams' 1965 novel Stoner subsequently became a bestseller all over Europe, first in French translation, but later elsewhere in Europe, and it has begun to get glowing notices in his native US. Williams is not around to enjoy the success, as he passed away in 1994. Now another of his novels, Augustus, has also begun its rise from obscurity. The New York Review of Books republished it last year on the occasion of the 2000th anniversary of the first Roman Emperor's death. On the NYRB website you can read Daniel Mendelsohn's fine introduction to the book.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
All this and no love for Butcher's Crossing?

Maybe five or six years ago, when I was in college, Stoner and BC were books that my friends kept circulating to each other, and this post gives me that same warm, cozy feeling of getting to pass around a book you're really fond of and let everybody read it. I remember everyone then referred to him as "the poet, John Williams" (as if we were supposed to have heard of his poems). I don't know that any of us particularly loved Augustus compared to the other two, though.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 8:18 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Butcher's Crossing, Williams' Great American Buffalo Slaughtering Novel, is also available from NYRB press. (Someone at NYRB really loves John Williams, Kingsley Amis, and J.R. Ackerley.)
posted by Iridic at 8:18 AM on February 20, 2015

Wow he is quite a good poet too. Thanks for the post!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:25 AM on February 20, 2015

Just read all the "Look Inside" content for Butcher's Crossing on Amazon. Going today to find a dead-tree copy at my local store. Really compelling intro.

Thanks! Never heard of this author.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 8:54 AM on February 20, 2015

John Gray had a good review last year.

I finished reading it two weeks ago. Very good, if predictability sad at the end.
posted by KaizenSoze at 9:04 AM on February 20, 2015

I haven't read Augustus yet, but Butcher's Crossing is great (though I didn't like the ending as much as the rest of it.)
posted by Jahaza at 9:18 AM on February 20, 2015

I think the most interesting thing about Williams is that his three novels are all excellent, but very dissimilar. It's like he picked three genres at random and decided to make an outstanding example of each.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 9:28 AM on February 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stoner has been on my radar forever and it keeps coming up in all kinds of links, posts, blogs, tweets, and now here. I need to read this and soon. The world wants me to.
posted by Fizz at 9:30 AM on February 20, 2015

Stoner ripped my heart out. Beautiful and devastating. I'm glad I didn't read it in college.
posted by janey47 at 9:37 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Augustus focus of this post has got to do with me having just finished the novel yesterday. It's quite a read. I can't think of a book that resembles it. Williams takes the 18th Century form of the epistolary novel and plugs in a bunch of characters who are all well versed in classical rhetoric and writing to people equally well versed, and then filters all of it through that cold, distant style that defined a lot of 20th Century writing.

The characters he creates are quite fleshy and thoughtful. Maecenas is one of the chilliest portraits of power I have seen presented. Not because he's so evil, but because he's so human and manages to misdirect his reader as well as himself from what really took place. And reading the diaries of Julia, Augustus' daughter, is just unbearably sad. Even minor characters who speak only fleetingly, for instance Brutus, leave such a strong imprint on the mind. It's an incredibly impressive book.

Oh, and as a quasi-personal aside, it was nice that after getting dissed twice, Catullus is praised by the character of Augustus in a way that undercuts beautifully the two characters who disparage the poet.
posted by Kattullus at 10:43 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've read all three of the books talked about here, and in some ways I think Butcher's Crossing is the best. I liked Stoner a lot, but it was marred by some pretty severe misogyny, that seemed to be Williams' own, rather than any character's. (Stoner's wife is depicted quite horribly in some pretty sexist-tropey ways.)

I really enjoyed Augustus, too, but even five years later I find myself thinking back to scenes from Butcher's Crossing, while most of Augustus has faded after fewer years than that. BC manages to pull together a story from strands of avarice, resourcefulness, futility, history, lust, blood, and devastation that is really affecting. Augustus shares many of those strands, but somehow the scale of the stage makes the suffering seem less significant, rather than more significant.

Williams is a great novelist. To write so few novels that are so good is quite an accomplishment.
posted by OmieWise at 10:48 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Several books have made me cry. Stoner made me weep for the last 30-odd pages.

It's the kind of book I don't want to give to my recently-retired dad because it's just too brutally on-the-nose. I also don't know if I'm emotionally up for rereading it, ever.

Highly recommended!
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:00 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The full catalog of the NYRB Classics is worth checking out. There are some lovely and forgotten gems in there. And many are available in kindle format if you happen to use an Amazon device of some kind.
posted by Fizz at 1:46 PM on February 20, 2015

posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 4:01 PM on February 20, 2015

Stoner was the best book I read last year.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 8:10 PM on February 20, 2015

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