Friday, April 15, 2016

Stoner, by John Williams

Staff review by Chris Saliba

John Williams' autobiographical novel Stoner is an intimate and personal exploration of one man's frustrations, disappointments and loneliness. Written in a plain, direct style, it's utterly gripping.

Stoner is the third novel by American writer John Williams. It was published in 1965, after being rejected by seven publishers. The only reason it found its way into print was due the energy and enthusiasm of a young editor at Viking Press. A quiet, intimate and understated novel, it is perhaps forgivable that so many missed its brilliance.

William Stoner is a farm boy who works on his parent’s land in Missouri. Eager that their boy should learn more about the technological improvements in agriculture, they send him to the University of Missouri. They do so with the understanding that Stoner will return to the farm. Things don’t work out as planned. A fire is lit in Stoner’s soul once he starts reading English literature. It opens new imaginative worlds for him. One of Stoner’s teachers, Archer Sloane, can already see that his pupil is destined to be a teacher too. Stoner changes his major from agriculture to literature, and there is no looking back.

While Stoner’s professional life seems to be coming together, his personal life is rocky and uncertain. He marries Edith, a cold and rather strange woman. The marriage is loveless and miserable, but produces one child, Grace. The couple remain together, despite their leading almost totally separate lives. After several years of fairly smooth sailing as an assistant  professor of literature, troubles start to percolate on campus. The murky world of university politics means Stoner is asked to do things he finds completely lacking in integrity. When he refuses to play along, life is made particularly difficult for him.

There’s really no other way to read Stoner but as an autobiographical novel. Besides the plot mirroring several key aspects of John Williams’ life - his career as an assistant professor, his unhappy marriages, his family history of farming - the novel has the palpable feel of an autobiography. Every word in the book breathes with a personal intimacy as every stage of Stoner’s life is told. We feel deeply, as though his troubles were our own, his frustrations, disappointments and loneliness. We also celebrate his joys and successes. Few books achieve such powerful yet simple honesty. Reading such a book so sympathetic to the human condition, it’s like looking in the mirror.

Stoner, by John Williams. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN:  9780099561545 RRP: $14.99

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