Monday 19 September 2011

Butcher's Crossing: Some Kind of Great

Having found John Williams' Stoner one of the finest, most perfectly formed - and moving - novels I've read, I was naturally curious to try his 'western', Butcher's Crossing. Actually, calling it a 'western' is about as useful as calling Stoner a 'campus novel'. However, in its early stages, Butcher's Crossing does adhere to many of the conventions of the genre. The town in which the greenhorn stranger, Will Andrews, arrives is recognisable from any number of western movies - the classic Wild West frontier town - and the men with whom Andrews throws in his lot are also recognisably stock characters, as are the townspeople. As I read, all that distinguished Butcher's Crossing at this point, it seemed to me, was the sheer quality of the writing, especially the vivid evocation of the sights, smells and sounds of the Old West. But then Andrews sets off with the buffalo hunter Miller, the mean-spirited skinner Schneider and the one-handed old-timer Charley Hoge on a trek to a remote mountain valley that Miller promises is swarming with immense herds of buffalo - and it gradually becomes apparent that Butchers Crossing is developing into something very much more interesting than a superior western...
The journey into Williams's own distinctive imaginative territory begins with the appalling ordeal of the trek across the scorching prairie, which nearly ends in the death of men, horses and oxen. But that is just a foretaste of privations to come. It's hard to say much more about what happens without spoiling the narrative for the potential reader - but it's not too much to give away that there are indeed buffalo where Miller said there would be, and in prodigious numbers. An orgy of slaughter ensues, in the course of which Miller turns into a relentless, affectless killing machine, so lost in the mechanical process of killing on an industrial scale that he makes a fatal misjudgment, plunging all the men into deadly peril.
The descriptions of the slaughter are Homeric in their unblinking attention to detail, and some passages - especially the scene in which Andrews butchers his first buffalo - are almost unreadably graphic. Butcher's Crossing is an immensely bleak work, an unsparing demolition of the western myth - or rather the Emersonian vision of man at one with Nature, the vision embodied in Andrews, whose father is a Unitarian preacher and who is clearly affected by a vaguely Emersonian idealism. At first I felt that Williams could have made more of this, filling in Andrews's inner life and motivation - it's the only inner life in the novel - but, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is no schematic 'philosophical' novel; Williams, like all good writers, shows not tells. And what he shows is shattering. Man in nature turns out to be something terrible and terrifying, and what is left of Andrews and the others after their ordeal is barely human.
Butcher's Crossing could hardly be more different from Stoner - it's hard to believe the same man wrote them both - but I'm quite sure it's some kind of great novel. It will certainly haunt me for a long time...


  1. It is a wonderful work, isn't it? Elements of Moby Dick mashed together with Heart of Darkness, but all Williams' own. Both Stoner and Butcher's Crossing haunt me (in different ways), too. I picked up Augustus this weekend and hope to start it soon.

  2. Yes that's next on my list too Dwight. Looking fwd to it...

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