This is the third of John Williams' major novels I have read, although it preceded his other two significant novels, "Stoner" and "Augustus." Williams is just amazing: this novel (purportedly about a buffalo hunt in Colorado in the late 19th century) is entirely different from "Stoner" (set in an academic setting in early to mid 20th century Missouri), which in turn is entirely different from "Augustus" which focuses upon the first real Roman emperor. Yet, each novel speaks with an authenticity that is truly unique. As is true with the author's other two novels, there is more at issue here than just a buffalo hunt. His carefully structured narrative raises issues of the closing of the frontier, man v. nature, loyalty and honor, and the dynamics of human interaction. His style is also different from "Stoner," which was as lean a novel as I have read; here there is much more description, dialogue, and setting the stage. This very fine New York Review of Books edition (which also published "Stoner") is well crafted and has a helpful introduction my Michelle Latiolais, a former student of Williams. Amongst other things we learn that Williams in effect smoked himself to death, dying from emphysema. What a loss. We also learn from her introduction that some consider this book "the finest western ever written." Well, I guess it is sort of a western, though the characters don't wear funny hats and carry six-shooters; I prefer to think of it as a great novel set in the west rather than necessarily a "western." A truly magnificant work of literary craftsmanship and a great reading experience.
If such a thing as the Great American Novel can be said to exist, it would very likely encompass the country's 19th Century westward expansion. After all, it was this irresistible land grab - with its ruthless expulsion and genocide of native Americans, its hunting to exinction of buffalo, and its struggles against Nature in search of the better life - that defined America's cultural personality and self-image for the following 150 - 200 years. The rootless but ever-hopeful individualist, the lonely conqueror of Nature, the rugged Marlboro Man begat the robber barons and industrialists, the real estate, oil, and hedge fund tycoons, the Internet entrepreneurs, and even the self-righteous, Iraq-invading neoconservatives.
Amazingly, John Williams's utterly brilliant BUTCHER'S CROSSING - perhaps, indeed, THE Great American Novel - appears to have gone largely unnoticed among the general reading public. Published in 1960, five years before the author's equally impressive STONER and 25 years before Cormac McCarthy's deservedly renowned BLOOD MERIDIAN, BUTCHER'S CROSSING encapsulates many of the American West's mythologies. Yet Williams is hardly a romantic in his interpretation. He presents the opening West as harsh and brutal, populated by socially challenged obsessives who view the land and everything in it as their private domains, seized by choice and held by force of will and gun.
Williams's ostensible hero is William Andrews, fresh from three years at Harvard and seeking an adventure in the West with a childlike enthusiasm and understanding. His mind filled by a romantic, Emerson-inspired view of Nature and his pockets filled with an inheritance from his uncle, Andrews heads for the decidedly uninspired, six-building town of Butcher's Crossing, Kansas. Within a matter of days, greenhorn Will has met the local buffalo hide trader McDonald and a long-time buffalo hunter named Miller. The traditional hunting grounds in Kansas have already been depleted to the point where only small herds of a few hundred animals can be found. However, Miller had discovered a hidden mountain valley in Colorado nine years earlier teeming with buffalo and has been waiting for enough money to finance the expedition. In return for accompanying the party as an apprentice hide skinner, Andrews underwrites the hunt. Miller recruits his neurotic sidekick, the Bible-beating Charley Hoge as the wagon man and a taciturn German named Schneider as their skinner. While Miller is away purchasing the necessary supplies, Will meets a prostitute named Francine. She falls for his soft hands and not yet hardened heart, but the immature Will is frightened off by her aggressive sexuality.
The bulk of BUTCHER'S CROSSING concerns the journey to find the buffalo, Miller's rediscovery of his Shangri-la valley, the hunt itself, the life-threatening storms the group endures, and finally, the difficult return trip to Butcher's Crossing to sell their hides. Along the way, Williams's book becomes a classic coming of age story, a discourse on ecology and species survival, and the story of an irrational, Ahab-like obsession that nearly ends in the men's destruction. In the end, Williams levies his own ironic form of judgment against Miller and McDonald for their repeated violations of Nature. Despite reconciling his feelings for Francine on his return to town, Andrews's future in the West is left deliberately uncertain. Perhaps he has finally learned to live with and respect Nature and will eventually find his rightful place. Or perhaps he, too, will be punished for his sins, forever banished to wandering the wilds alone, scarred by the real-life education he so enthusiastically sought from Miller.
Throughout the book, Williams's writing is sparse and direct, unsparing in its treatment of the men's deprivations and the bloodiness of the hunt. His characters are distinctive and memorable; although we never see deeply inside them, we know them for the archetypes they are. Dialog is limited and short, as these are men of few words. The overall effect of the writing remarkably prefigures that of Cormac McCarthy without the density and compound, run-on sentences, resulting in a highly readable and deeply engaging page turner. Fans of McCarthy will certainly appreciate Williams's accomplishment here, but I believe BUTCHER'S CROSSING merits a much wider audience. This is a magnificent but regrettably under-recognized work of literature that feels timeless in its writing style and enduring in its themes.
on November 14, 2008
Poetic prose. Intense descriptions that almost threaten you enough with its unbearable inevitibility to stop your reading--see the buffalo massacre. Existential scenery and action throughout. A minimalist style that sculpts the story neatly. Butcher's Crossing is in the American vein of Cooper's Leather Stocking Tales--see The Priarie-; lifts the "Western" story telling above Oakly Hall and Cormack McCarthy, taking it to a new level--as Jarmusch did in his Western film Dead Man and beyond Eastwood's High Plains Drifter; Butcher's Crossing is a cowboy novel Camus would have written had he located The Stranger in America rather than Africa. Yet this is a great American novel regardless of setting that explores the energies and desires, drives and values that propel American society. The ending is as difficult to bear as the buffalo hunt--the metaphor of both and the novel overall leaves you inspired and disturbed. One of the best books I have ever read from an almost anonymous American novelist.
Last note: John Williams' other novels, Stoner and Augustus are equally amazing works of writing, literature and art.
John Williams should be required reading for every student of literature, at least. For people who love to read great writing, he is mandatory.
on March 7, 2009
I "discovered" this book when I ordered a new copy of Williams' other novel, STONER. I'd never heard of Butcher's Crossing, but man, this is one helluva good read about the last of the buffalo hunters, but also an example of literary fiction at its finest. You hardly expect a Harvard man to be hunting the buff, but that's what you get here, as well as what he thinks about it all. There are probably many comparisons that could be made here. One other book I thought of while reading this one is THE MOTHERS by Vardis Fisher, an excellent novel about the Donner Party. The truth is though, John Williams is a one-of-a-kind author who, were there any justice in this world, should have been as well known as Updike, Roth and Bellow. This book is well worth your time. - Tim Bazzett, author of the Reed City Boy trilogy and Love, War & Polio
One of the most satisfying things about reading for me lies in the discovery of lost gems.
It is a joy to find the work of John Williams, an exquisite yet largely unknown American novelist whose works are currently in the process of being rediscovered. The first John Williams book I read was the terrific "Stoner," about a nondescript small college professor in the Midwest in the first half of the 20th century. "Butcher's Crossing" is the second book of his that I devoured, Williams' only western, set in 1870's Kansas and Colorado. The subject matter of the two books is vastly different, and here Williams' fiercely intelligent, brutal, and understated writing style brings to life what the New York Times Book Review called "perhaps the first and best revisionist western." "Butcher's Crossing" paved the way for Cormac McCarthy ("Blood Meridian," "All the Pretty Horses," "The Road") and others writing in the genera favoring realism over romanticism in the American West. Instead of promoting the popular western mythology and "false ideals of manhood," the revisionist western portrays the Old West more realistically. In the view of noted Italian director Sergio Leone, the revisionist western recognizes the American West as "a dirty place filled with morally ambivalent figures."
William Andrews drops out of Harvard University in the 1870's and heads west full of the naturalistic idealism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Andrews is caught up in Emerson's idea of truth and beauty in nature, and believes he can find what he is looking for on the American frontier. He ends up in the backwater town of Butcher's Crossing Kansas, a "hide town" that is the base of operations for buffalo hunters in the area. The buffalo are dwindling in Kansas, but Andrews hooks up with veteran buffalo man Miller, who tells tales of one last untouched heard of thousands in a hidden valley in the mountains of the Colorado territory. Andrews finances Miller's expedition and they take off late in the year (August) to make their fortunes along with one-handed Bible-thumping alcoholic cook Charley Hoge and petulant skinner Fred Schneider. They very nearly die of thirst on the way, but finally find the valley Miller remembers from years before, complete with buffalo as far as the eye can see.
Miller begins to kill the buffalo while Andrews helps Schneider with the dirty business of skinning the hides. The days turn into weeks and the heard shrinks more and more until the stacks of bailed hides far exceed the party's capacity to haul them out in their single wagon. Still Miller kills, obsessed with wiping out every last head. They stay too long, get trapped in the valley by a blinding blizzard and end up having to wait until spring to make their escape. During the long months of isolation they all begin to change, and one of the fascinating things to watch is Andrews' consciousness of his own transformation, even as he is powerless to stop it. Far from the idealized west, Andrews gradually realizes that it is a terrifying place with the road to progress paved in blood.
"Butcher's Crossing" has many similarities to "Moby Dick." Miller is an obsessive Ahab-like figure bent on the complete destruction of either the heard or himself. We have Andrews' subtle coming of age and disturbing transformation (like Ishmael) from greenhorn to desensitized butcher of animal carcasses. There are also the author's unsparing descriptions of the environment surrounding the men, how it changes them, and how the men change the ecology of the environment itself.
Time Out New York said that "Butcher's Crossing" is "a graceful and brutal story of isolated men gone haywire." In her introduction to the edition Michelle Latiolais writes, "John Williams' unflinching attention in `Butcher's Crossing' to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature -- man's nature -- to be a horrifying prospect."
"Butcher's Crossing" is a magnificent and criminally under recognized novel. Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" is often cited as one of the best American novels (I agreed when I read and reviewed it last year), but "Butcher's Crossing," written in 1960, predates it by 25 years and deserves at least as much recognition. Author John Williams is a true master and his works deserve a much wider readership. Very highly recommended.
SPECIAL NOTE: I just found out that director Sam Mendes ("Revolutionary Road") is currently adapting "Butcher's Crossing" for film. Joe Penhall, who adapted Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" for film, reportedly is working on the script.
This 2007 novel is so well done that it seems it was actually written in the 1870's when the West was young and buffalo herds were still available for slaughter. This is the coming-of-age story of Will Andrews, an Eastern college dropout, who comes to Kansas for an adventure and finds it when he joins up with three other men on an ill-advised adventure trip to a Colorado Valley to hunt for buffalo.
There is an authenticity to this story that made me feel as if I was right there with them, a silent party in their midst, experiencing the grueling trip through parched land, storms, and open terrain and the eventual discovery of a buffalo herd. After that there is an orgy of killing, so ferocious and appalling that I couldn't help but be nauseated. I certainly learned everything that I ever wanted to know about a buffalo hunt, and a lot more I never wanted to know.
When this small group of hunters get stranded during an icy winter, they have no choice but to dig in and try to survive and the descriptions of the cold and hunger, conflicts and perseverance of the group make for great reading. How it all turns out seems inevitable later with Will Evans growing into manhood against the backdrop of this dark era in America's history.
I absolutely loved this book. Every word was an adventure for me. I felt I was actually sharing the hunting experience down to the last detail. This is a great story. Don't miss it.
on March 29, 2011
If you're considering reading "Butcher's Crossing", chances are you might have already read and enjoyed "Stoner" and/or "Augustus" by the same author, John Williams. Such was the case for me. It was the awesome writing in those two books that recommended Williams' story of 1870s western America, though "...Crossing" could have been written by a completely different author for all the literary and historic distance from First Century BC Rome and mid 20th Century America. What they all have in common is the author's remarkable eye for character, background and, above all, the perfect use of language to evoke place and mood.
"Butcher's Crossing" is, on one level, the pursuit of "the meaning of life" by a young man (Will Andrews) from a comfortable if repressed East Coast background. Andrews, like many an American of the period, is drawn to the idea of finding a more interesting reality and future on the Western frontier. His adventure begins with arrival in the Kansas outback village of Butcher's Crossing. The small tent settlement lives off the hunting of buffalo on the near by plains. Andrews falls in with an experienced hunter who takes him and two companions to a mountainous area of the Colorado Territory where there are still large herds of "unharvested" buffalo and where he believes that a great fortune is to be made through a mass slaughter of the animals. The bulk of the story is about what the four men encounter on the hunt and in its aftermath. This is ultimately a saga of tragedy and disappointment for three of the men, but a major shift in life path for the fourth.
The narrative in this book is amazing and will not leave any reader unmoved. Author Williams' language brings the reality of each vignette into sharp relief and forces a reaction to it. The methodical killing of the buffalo described in naturalistic, graphic language is perhaps the most affecting part of the story for 21st Century sensibilities, but every conversation between characters, every step along the trail, every description of living through a mountain winter puts the reader in the moment.
Wonderful book. A 4+ on the Amazon scale.
on October 13, 2012
In a recent issue of "Cowboys and Indians" magazine, editor J. D. Reid recommends "Butcher's Crossing" as "revisionist literature at its best" and notes that in 1960, when University of Denver professor John Williams published this novel, pulp Westerns were highly popular fare in print and film. The genre perpetuated myths of rugged individualism and frontier romanticism, and such books and movies undoubtedly dominated spare-time leisure among college students. "You certainly get the sense that Williams, a native of Red River County in North Texas, smelled something phony and was determined to set the record straight," writes Reid. The result was Williams's only "Western" (he wrote just four novels), which imagines what turns out to be, for all intents and purposes, the last buffalo hunt.
"Butcher's Crossing" certainly isn't the first "revisionist" Western, but it's one of the best. Its "hero" (and I use the term advisedly) is Will Andrews, a third-year Harvard student who drops out after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose idealism convinces the young man that he should find "his own undiscovered nature." Perhaps like Williams's own students in the late 1950s, Andrews is spellbound by the myth of the frontier, a place where he can pursue "a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life." He is, we will find out, sorely deluded.
Andrews has the means and the desire; what he lacks is a mentor. He finds one in an old hand named Miller. But Andrews has arrived too late: by 1873, the buffalo had virtually vanished from the prairie. Fortunately (or not), Miller has a secret which has become an obsession: he knows of a pristine valley he had stumbled upon years earlier that holds what may well be the last intact herd of buffalo. Thus, when the young Andrews shows up with the funding for an expedition, a foursome of men head off on their journey, not quite sure of the location of this paradisiacal lost horizon or even of whether the herd has survived the intervening years. Like Ahab traversing the seas for whale, Miller leads his band of men through the Rockies to hunt buffalo.
The meticulous attention to detail and the unflinching abandonment of anything resembling frontier idealism led NPR's Alan Prendergast to call this an "anti-Western." I would agree but would argue further that Williams's book also fits just as comfortably inside two other literary traditions: historical fiction and American naturalism. Throughout, you can see the influence not only of Melville, but also of Janet Lewis, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, and even Fenimore Cooper. And, in spite of its measured and almost fussy prose, "Butcher's Crossing" makes for gripping reading as you follow these men on their seemingly impossible and futile trek: the macabre thrill of the hunt, the senselessness of the men's fanatical avarice, their battles with the unforgiving elements, and the vagaries of a changing frontier. Through their loss, we see the reality of how the West was won.
on February 16, 2015
John Williams was born in the Northeast Texas town of Clarksville, only a few miles from where I grew up and also the home of William Humphrey, author of Home From the Hill. I had previously read Williams' Stoner novel about a University of Missouri English professor. Some called that book the perfect novel, but only long after it was published. Since he was a professor there, autobiographical fiction comes to mind.
He won the National Book Award for his book Augustus. Butcher's Crossing could be classified as a western, but is definitely atypical for the genre and a complete departure from Williams' other works. This is the tale of a young man who drops out of Harvard and travels to a small Kansas town "in search of himself". He finances and goes along on a buffalo hunting trip in the mountains of Colorado. The book's synopsis did not appeal to me, but Williams was a master at character definition and I wanted to see what he did with a western. I still enjoy novels written when writing styles were more lyrical and descriptive and Williams writing of characters and places is highly descriptive.
In spite of my misgivings, he drew me into the harrowing tale of the hunt and its aftermath. His research into what it takes for four men to journey into mountains with an ox-drawn single wagon and three horses is impressive, proving he can write well in many genres and styles.
Rails to a River: A Long Awakening
on December 9, 2010
Don't remember how I first heard of Williams, but I bought and read Butcher's Crossing on the strength of the glowing reviews here on Amazon. Wish I could join the bandwagon, but I just wasn't very impressed. A "masterpiece" it certainly is not. Think Zane Grey, not Cormac McCarthy.
The novel tells the story of young Will Andrews who shows up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the tiny Kansas frontier village of Butcher's Crossing with a letter of introduction to a man who at some time in the distant past used to attend Will's father's church in Boston. That this remote connection instantaneously offers a Will a job is only the first of a long string of implausibilities we have to swallow in the first 50 pages. Will is an unreconstructed Transcendentalist, but about 30 years too late. (Will supposedly had seen Emerson--senile and in ill health by the 1870s--read his essay "Nature" (1836) at Harvard...only one of several jarring anachronisms in the novel). Rejecting the job, in very short order Will meets a bunch of stock Western types straight out of Hollywood central casting: the taciturn rugged hunter, Miller (imagine John Wayne), the crippled alcoholic sidekick, Hoge (Walter Brennan), the prostitute with a heart of gold, Francine (Claire Trevor), and the grumbling buffalo skinner, Schneider (Ward Bond). Within a very few minutes of meeting Miller, Andrews has blindly leapt at the chance to finance an expedition to Colorado in search of a huge herd of buffalo Miller had chanced across many years earlier, and has (very improbably) agreed to serve as the junior skinner on the trip (a decision akin to paying for the privilege of being a galley slave).
Frankly, all this struck me as corny to the nth degree, and I came within a whisker of giving up on the novel at the end of Part 1. However, Part 2, which forms the bulk of the novel and details the arduous journey to Colorado and what they find there, was considerably more compelling. The characterization and dialogue in Butcher's Crossing are purely formulaic, but Williams' descriptive writing is effective in its depiction of the landscapes of the West and of the trials the men undergo while completely cut off from civilization. Williams' theme is to de-Romanticize the taming of the West: Andrews, the boyish arch-Romantic, gets a series of brutal lessons in the indifference of nature and the cruelty of humankind. If, more than 100 years after Conrad's Heart of Darkness, none of this is news, the writing in Part 2 still manages to be fluid, evocative and involving.
Unfortunately, the third part of the novel, when the action finally returns to Butcher's Crossing, is as weak as the opening, liberally larded with melodrama (Arson! Madness! Romance?). The problem here is not so much the overly-dramatic turn of events, as that the characterization remains opaque or trite to the very end. Is Miller motivated by something as banal as greed, or does he represent some arbitrarily destructive force in human nature, an Ahab of the Great Plains? As for Will, he remains a too-convenient mouthpiece for the author's musings, and his world-weariness at the end of the novel is no more persuasive than his (literally) virginal naivete at the outset.
In sum, this book is not some forgotten classic. It's a journeyman effort with strong points and weak points in rough equilibrium. It's OK, but hardly deserving of the extremely fulsome praise it's received on this site. Since this novel was first published, Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner (among others) have covered this ground much more insightfully and with far greater skill. 2.5 stars.