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Butcher's Crossing, By John Williams: Book review

John Williams' 'Stoner' has achieved late popular acclaim but is the dead author's second novel another forgotten work of brilliance?

The greatest novel you've never read," reads the puff on the cover of Vintage's reissue of John Williams' Stoner. The confidence of this assertion was entirely reasonable when it was first made earlier this year, but with every passing week it gets less likely to be true: it is becoming difficult to find anyone interested in books who hasn't read it.

Stoner, neglected on its first publication in 1965, is one of the publishing phenomena of 2013, propelled by a few influential enthusiasts, word of mouth, and finally a fresh critical engagement to sell nearly 60,000 copies, despite its declared status as a novel about a quiet and forgettable academic. Now it has been chosen as Waterstones' Book of the Year. The way is clear for a new underdog novel to rise from obscurity, and so after a 40-year hiatus, Vintage are reissuing Butcher's Crossing, Williams' first mature work, with high hopes that the magic will repeat itself.

It'll be interesting to see how it does. Even if you could reproduce the extraordinary momentum that Stoner was blessed with, Butcher's Crossing is less obviously appealing. Stoner uses its first page to explain why its protagonist's life is not worthy of attention, and the next 287 to defy that premise with the kind of diligence that can only be born of love; although it is sad, it is so deeply and obviously humane that the reader comes away filled with a weird sort of optimism. Butcher's Crossing, on the other hand, aims at a rather more terrible beauty.

The book's world is far removed from Stoner's university scene. Set in the 1870s, it follows Will Andrews, a Harvard student who has abandoned his studies and headed for Kansas in the hope of finding the sublime. Andrews is a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom he shares a transcendentalist conviction that he can become "a transparent eyeball" through communion with nature. In the wild, he believes, he is "a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained".

Armed with a small bequest, Andrews travels from Massachusetts to Butcher's Crossing, a tiny, hardscrabble settlement dependent on the trade in buffalo hide. Before long he has met an experienced hunter called Miller, who tells him in nearly mystical terms about one of the last great mountain valley buffalo herds in neighbouring Colorado, and without too much trouble persuades him to fund a hunting expedition. Andrews volunteers to go on the epic journey with Miller and two others. As they prepare for the adventure, the impatient Andrews wishes he could take the three or four days' wait and "press them into one crumpled bit of time that he could toss away". That excitement comes 70 pages in. The rest of the book is devoted to proving it folly.

Williams gave Butcher's Crossing an epigraph from Emerson, but the truth is that he was deeply skeptical about Emerson's vision – and, relatedly, about the traditional Western, a cliché that he was so insistent on subverting that he refused to sanction the book's reissue in 1960 because the publishers wanted to put the label "A Western" on the cover. (He thus set the stage for Cormac McCarthy.) Williams grew up in Texas and lived and taught in Denver, Colorado; he said in one interview that "there's a very real sense in which 'The West' does not, did not ever, exist. It's a dream of the East." In another, he amusedly pointed out that when testing himself against the elements on Walden Pond in the rather less brutal Massachusetts countryside, Emerson's protégé Henry David Thoreau "used to go into town nearly every weekend to get a home cooked meal".

Thoreau would not have lasted for long in Williams' Colorado, which becomes an implacable, almost malevolent force. "Get out of this country," one Eastern character is eventually told. "It doesn't want you." By the end of the first morning of the journey to the mountains, Andrews' fantasy of nature has been disrupted by reality: he strains to recall the "sharp engravings he had seen in books, in magazines, when he was at home in Boston; but the thin black lines wavered upon the real grass before him, took on colour, then faded".

Placing their faith in the inscrutable Miller, the group nearly die of thirst before they reach their destination, and although the prolonged exposure to nature provides some kind of transcendent experience, it is an ironically coarsened version of Emerson's ideal: in the West, the price of being "a part and parcel of God" turns out to be a piece of your humanity. Months in the wild leave Andrews mesmerized, and the narrative correspondingly begins to verge on the hallucinogenic. Still, if this is something like what he wanted, he retains just enough of a purchase on civilization to shudder at the horror of the hunt that is Butcher's Crossing's extraordinary centrepiece. The book's title, it becomes clear, refers not just to a settlement, but to a state of mind; the question is whether Andrews and his fellow butchers can cross back.

Much is made of the diversity of Williams' small output; his only other mature work, Augustus, is an epistolary novel of Ancient Rome. In fact, though, whatever their superficial differences, all three books are united in the only way that matters: by the exquisite discipline and precision of Williams' writing. Seduced by a cheap myth, Andrews eventually finds he can only "speak in broken phrases that did not say what he intended"; conversely, his creator builds an alternative mythology, still powerful today, by paring his language down to the plainest style possible. Shorn of sentimentality or decoration, the events and places he describes begin to feel inescapable, permanent, and rivetingly dramatic. This is language that seems to be carved into stone – into mountains.

Readers will inevitably compare the books, and if you were forced to pick, you might say that Stoner is the superior work: Butcher's Crossing fades, just a little, in the final section, which carries an epiphanic quality not quite true to everything that precedes it. Happily, no such choice is necessary. Stoner showed us a writer who had written a great book. To those of us who didn't know already, Butcher's Crossing reveals John Williams to be more than that: forgotten writer as he was, he was unquestionably also a great one.

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