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on October 5, 2014
I first read John William's novel, 20 year ago, when it was reissued by the NYRB Press, and recognized it immediately for a work of incredible craft, beauty and insight by an author I had never previously even heard of. A month ago, I read William's Augustus upon its re-issue, and again knew I was in the presence of greatness. But neither work prepared me for Butcher's Crossing which, hard as it is for even me to believe, surpasses them both.

Butchers Crossing is a novel that stares unblinkingly at the utter meaningless of our romantic (read, Emersonian) conception of Nature, and the empty egoism of our own inflated sense of ourselves as sentient beings, and yet finds incredible Beauty in existence. It is not an exaggeration to rank William's accomplishment in this novel with the novels of Melville, Conrad and Thomas Mann. It is book that will stay with me a long time, and that I know I will pick up again with even greater pleasure. A treasure, all the more so for being so unexpected.
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on June 25, 2017
This was a quick read, it was interesting and fast paced though much less psychological than what I had hoped. It is somewhat of a coming of age sort of tale but the one major thing I felt Williams fell horribly short on was that often he brought you up to a pinnacle near some sort of emotional or tangible breakthrough with the main character but then it almost felt like he did not know how to strike the finishing blow and lay out what he was getting at. Even though most of the time he was close enough to know what it was he was trying to reach, in a very roundabout way. I just really felt like he was grasping at straws and beating around the bush when it came to the emotional and psychological aspects.

Albeit, I would say this was a pretty atypical "western". There were some potent moments and surprises. The things I found most interesting were the details of what life was probably like on a long hunt during this time. He seemed to have a lot of the details of that pinned down really well.

Overall, there was a lot to be desired on the emotional and psychological plain. Especially since this is presented as an exploration of society and psychology of people in a brutal situation. Being stuck in the mountains, cabin fever, returning to a changed world. Mass killing and eradication of something in nature for profit. Sometimes I felt the characters acted... very out of character as well. Or maybe they were acting in a way that was a bit too extreme, it almost seemed unrealistic. But of course it was a short novel and some of the more intense times were bridged down quite a bit. It is worth reading if you want something fast paced and striking, but that is about it in my opinion.

Oh, and the description of the book (also found on the back of the novel), is really bad, once you begin reading you'll find out. Point one, Will Andrews seems to know what he is looking for when he comes to Butcher's Crossing. This was no hanging out in a saloon and struck up a random conversation and decided "What the heck, I'll go on a hunt!" sort of situation.
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on October 15, 2014
I enjoyed this, it is a wonderfully written western novel with well drawn characters and stirring descriptions of the wilderness when the Buffalo ran free and the land was rich and untouched.

This is the story of a young and untried Will Andrews who arrives at Butcher's Crossing in search of enlightenment. He gets more than he bargained for when he funds a expedition with the taciturn Miller in search of the rapidly decliining Buffalo.

After a gruelling and harrowing trip they track their quarry in a pristine, bounteous valley high in the mountains....and then the slaughter begins. Here my review takes a bit of a tangent because I have to say that.....

I felt for those Buffalo, Slaughter for the mighty dollar. It was ironic that later when Andrews and Miller were fighting to survive that it was the Buffalo that aided their survival.

It is a well written, a sometimes disturbing novel, but it does make you feel emotion and that's why I'm rating it so highly. I don't consider it the best in this genre, but it is up there......
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on December 7, 2016
"A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell..... a death wind for my people."
~~Sitting Bull

They came down into valley, and the buffalo herds were moving darkly over the land like waves on the ocean. The men slowly moved in on them. The first shot went to kill the leader of the herd, more shots would follow. My mind stopped. The buffalo just stood there in wonder of what was going on. and one by one they were killed. What innocence they had. What beautiful creatures. What a very moving novel.
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HALL OF FAMEon March 25, 2012
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.
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on July 12, 2014
This book has been called the greatest western ever written. Williams is not a “western” novelist, like a Louie Lamoure, just a great writer that wrote a novel set in the west. The story is about a greenhorn from Boston with wanderlust caused by ennui who joins some buffalo hunters at “Butcher’s Crossing.” Let’s just say things don’t go as planned. Interesting characters, beautiful descriptions, but an ending you may or may not like. I could never quite grab hold of the author’s overall thesis, but I feel like it was my fault and not his. To give you a sense of the power of his writing, I was reading the book while riding the train to work and the passage was about the characters being trapped in a blizzard. When the train stopped and I went to get off, my first thought was if I had an overcoat to keep me warm in the storm I was about to enter. So, not frivolous fare, but a substantial read that isn’t dense. 4-1/2 stars our of 5.
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on December 13, 2014
This is one of the best novels I've read in years. In terms of depth and its study of the human condition I would compare it to a book like "Of Human Bondage" by W Somerset Maugham with its profound insight to life.
The story is deceptively simple, it's basically a classic western. A young man from the civilized east seeks adventure in the west and joins a hunting party going into unsettled country on a buffalo hunt. They get snowed in over winter and struggle to survive before coming back in the spring. However the little town of Butcher's Crossing from which they departed has changed and that change mirrors what has happened to them.
For a novel that has such emotional and philosophical punch it is remarkably easy to read and the pages just fly by.
Highly recommended.
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on November 29, 2014
I submit the theme of this book to be "man's inhumanity to himself." I knew that the buffalo were nearly extinct in the wild west era, but I never knew the brutality involved.

The men in this novel made such horrendous choices that the mind becomes numb by the consequences. I love a good survival tale, but the level of destruction to man and beast brings a new definition to the word, survival.

Please be aware that this is no idyll of the historic west. This is brutally, though beautifully wrought, and leaves no room for nostalgia. Reader beware, this is not a story for the "weak of heart." I leave the details to unfold as they do. That way, the reader can decide for himself, how to delve, or not, into this tale of horror and woe.
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Two of my interests crossed paths and led me to read John Williams' novel, "Butcher's Crossing" (1960). First, I have become interested in literary American westerns, such as those written by A.B. Guthrie including "The Big Sky". Second, I became interested in Williams (1922 -- 1994) through reading his novel "Stoner". These interests in westerns and in Williams coalesced in "Butcher's Crossing".

"Butcher's Crossing" is a dark, thoughtful work framed by quotations from Emerson and Melville. The quotations offer competing views of nature and of optimism. The book is set in Butcher's Crossing, a small crossroads in Kansas in the early 1870s. The primary character, Will Andrews, 23, is the son of a well-to-do teacher and Unitarian minister. He has dropped out of Harvard and come west in search of what he perceives as "a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous." The other primary character is Miller, whom Andrews meets early in his stay. Miller is a tough, hardened buffalo hunter who in the novel is the Ahab to Andrews' Ishmael. Andrews agrees to finance and participate in a buffalo hunt in the wilds of Colorado where Miller has observed large, pristine herds. Two other men participate in the hunt, Miller's friend, Charley Hoge, who has lost a hand, reads the Bible, and is alcoholic and Schneider, profane and cantankerous, but a hunter and expert skinner of buffalo. Two other important characters remain in Butcher's Crossing: Francine, a prostitute, and McDonald, a dealer in hides who had briefly known Andrews' father in Boston and participated in his Unitarian meetings.

The story is about the buffalo hunt and its impact, primarily on Andrews. Williams describes the long, dangerous journey to the mountains to find a large, unexploited herd. The center of the book describes in great detail the hunt of the buffalo and the wanton killing led by Miller. Virtually the entire herd is decimated with their bones and carcasses left to rot. The description is raw, harsh, and unforgettable. Williams describes how the four men get caught in a blizzard through their greed and killing and how, under Miller's leadership, they survive a furious winter. Then, the men return to a changed and near-deserted Butcher's Crossing with their labor, risk, and killing going for naught. The callow Andrews has been changed and has a brief, intense relationship with Francine, whom he had spurned before the hunt. The other men meet harsh fates as well through the hunt and the bitter winter and aftermath.

This is a darkly pessimistic novel about nature, about greed and lust, and about the dream and danger of searching to find oneself. Andrews comes to see the despair underlying his own life and the lives of those whom he meets in Butcher's Crossing. Near the end of the book, he reflects on his own decision to go west and on his short relationship with Francine:

"He could hardly recall, now, the passion that had drawn him to this room and this flesh, as if by a subtle magnetism; nor could he recall the force of that other passion which had impelled him halfway across a continent into a wilderness where he had dreamed he could find, as in a vision, his unalterable self. Almost without regret, he could admit now the vanity from which those passions had sprung."

Williams' writing is taut, descriptive, and largely understated. His novel takes some mostly formulaic western scenes and characters and transforms them through his writing and his insight. I don't find a tone of satire or mockery of the standard, formulaic western. Rather, Williams shows how this sometimes hackneyed form can have life and vision. With its questioning of what it sees as the superficial vision of the traditional type of western story, the book works to restate the power of the genre when used creatively. This book is multi-layered, dense, beautiful, and troubling. It rewarded the crossing of my interests in Williams and in the American western and made me want to think more about both.

Robin Friedman
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on September 8, 2009
It's hard to believe we had, at one time, such a place as the the old west for our young people to cut their teeth in! A young man from Boston who's spent 3 years at Harvard rides a stage coach across country to a deserted 10 horse town in Kansas. He's literally set down in the middle of nothing. I loved Williams' description of the `town'. The buildings had been hastily put up and the people were barely socialized. The only industry was killing animals to sell to a middle man for the Eastern market. Against this backdrop our Emerson besotted Bostonian joins up with a few hardened frontier men who are looking for a bank roll so they can chase their dream of killing buffalo. Our hero, Will Andrews, can't resist the adventure this Don Quixote and his Sancho Panza tempt him with. They set out and encounter way more than windmills. They head towards the mountains of Colorado.

I'd never heard of John Williams until I came across a review of his "Stoner" which led me to "Butcher's Crossing". He's an incredible writer and though the entire book is not to be missed the last third was achingly beautiful. The landscape is intrinsic to the story. It could even be considered one of the main characters. Here's one of the many passages that I couldn't help reading over and over. It describes the coming of spring in the Colorado mountains, "The mountainside was a riot of varied shade and hue. The dark green of the pine boughs was lightened to a greenish yellow at the tips, where new growth was starting; scarlet and white buds were beginning to open on the wild-berry bushes; and the pale green of new growth on the slender aspens shimmered above the silver-white bark of their trunks. All about the ground the pale new grass reflected the light of the sun into the shadowed recesses beneath the great pines, and the dark trunks glowed in that light, faintly, as if the light came from the hidden centers of the trees themselves. He thought that if he listened he could hear the sound of growth." Writing just doesn't get much better than this in my opinion.
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