Stoner is a half-forgotten classic by John Williams, to which I was guided by the number one source of so many of my book choices—a friend’s recommendation. The element that blew me away about this work was its craft. I’ve never encountered a more elegant and simply constructed style. Williams sometimes covers momentous events in his subject’s life with a simple sentence or two: “In less than a month, Stoner knew his marriage was a failure, and in a year he gave up hope of doing anything about it.” You’d think that would about do it. However Stoner, both as a character and as a novel, is about playing the hand you are dealt until the very last card. No throwing it in. No leaving the game or changing it. You’re allowed to discard and draw from time to time, but you’re stuck at the table till the end.
William Stoner grows up on a hardscrabble farm, goes to a university to study agriculture, becomes enamored of literature (first draw from the passion deck), leaves the farm for a professorship, marries badly on impulse and infatuation (second draw from the passion deck), continues to bear life with his increasingly neurotic wife, who bears him a daughter, has an affair (third draw from the passion deck), chooses profession and family over romance (first discard), teaches till retirement, and dies of cancer.
It might seem I’m giving away plot, but there is no pretense of suspense or surprise in Stoner. The book trudges on in much the same manner as Stoner’s life. In his introduction to the edition I read, John McGahern quotes williams as saying that “Teaching to [Stoner] is a job–a job in the good honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was … It’s the love of the thing that’s essential … In doing the task is where the tradition and the culture lie.” If this is so, it is a singularly dreary and joyless culture that’s being preserved. Stoner pretty much abandons his home, particularly his daughter, for his job. We are to believe, I suppose, that Williams means to present him as he a man of the intellect, unable to deal with emotions, conflict, and crisis, one who cannot be expected to take care matters both at the hearth and at the lectern. Indeed, during his affair with a graduate student, the lovers discuss the fact that they’ve long been accustomed to separate matters of the head and heart and revel in the discovery that they can be whole with each other. Unfortunately, Stoner is unable to transfer that capacity to other areas of his life, and both he and his family pay a high price. Without his leadership or commitment, his daughter becomes the victim of her nearly infantile mother, becomes promiscuous to become the popular student her mother wants her to be, becomes pregnant to get out of the jail of her home, becomes an alcoholic to numb her bitterness, then abandons her son to her in-laws after the baby’s father is killed in WWII.
Stoner is a first-class literary achievement, as well-written as any novel you’re likely to encounter. And it’s not a one time fluke. Williams won the National Book Award, no less, for Augustus (Which I haven’t read.) in 1973. But it is a joyless work. Not one of tragic dimensions that encompasses hope and despair and gives the reader the experience of both. It is a pedestrian and confined vision of life’s possibilities that we have here, and it seems to me the virtues of duty and work are far outweighed by the vices of moral and emotional cowardice and neglect. You can’t condemn a work for its small compass—look at Austen and Ishiguro—but you can criticize it for possessing neither delight nor hope. Tragedy comes from hopes dashed. Stoner never hoped for much—“what did you expect?” he asks himself several times as he makes a death-bed review of his lackluster life—so we never hope much for him either, and in the end we are thus not much disappointed. And so Stoner’s life ends, as colorless and as ill-constructed as the hardscrabble Missouri farmhouse where it began. It’s a strangely unsatisfying read for such a well-written book.