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It’s hard as a Midwesterner to not be a bit envious of the great Southern writing tradition in the United States. William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and so many others beautifully animate the region and its people. We delight to sample the appealing fare, but each reading also reveals our experience as an outsider.
Maybe that’s why I was caught off guard by a recent book recommendation. I was told it was a must-read American novel. Apparently, this book with the peculiar title, which uses MU as its backdrop, was even the subject of a 2018 biography titled, “The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel.”
As the accolades piled up, the fact remained: I had never heard of “Stoner” or its author, John Williams.
And yet, it didn’t take long for the skeptic in me to be convinced. “Stoner” proved to be one of those rare reads, written with precision, that illuminated my Midwestern roots with such clarity and honesty.
The story’s central character, William Stoner, is the only child of a poor Missouri farm family. This “simple man of soil” leaves home in 1910 and enrolls in the College of Agriculture at MU. The intent is to return home after four years and tend to the dusty soil like his parents. He abandons this trajectory after an encounter with a professor awakens his love for English literature. Instead he becomes a scholar at the university. The bulk of the narrative immerses us in Stoner’s mid-life, the nature of his work, and the tension of his marriage.
Now, you probably wouldn’t want to take one of Stoner’s classes or get a beer with him at The Heidelberg. He is not the most likable guy. But it is his austere, passive, almost melancholic characteristics that make him believable.
Williams established a connection with Columbia and the university while working on his PhD in English literature here. He finished in 1954 and spent the remainder of his academic career as an English professor at the University of Denver.
“Stoner” was Williams’ third novel. Whereas his 1972 novel “Augustus” earned him a National Book Award, “Stoner” saw little acclaim when it was published in 1965. It has been a late bloomer, becoming an international bestseller around the book’s 50th anniversary and almost 20 years after Williams’ death. This surge of attention also includes a soon-to-be produced movie starring Casey Affleck.
It’s a durable novel because the characters and story are constructed with materials familiar to the reader: the coldness that can develop in a marriage; the mundane or often unpleasant qualities of our jobs; the disappointment of missed parenting opportunities; the difficulty of maintaining substantive friendships with age.
As Williams’ widow said in an interview with the Paris Review earlier this year, “He just wasn’t interested in abstracts. He wanted to get down to cases.”
Since Williams tends to his stories with this clear-eyed attention, I hope you’ll grab a copy of “Stoner” sooner rather than later and join me in becoming an eager recipient of his generosity.