Paperbacks of the year: Part one

John Williams's Butcher’s Crossing deserves to rank with Ernest Hemingway’s in the canon of American greats

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The Independent Culture

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (Vintage £8.99)

John Williams’s Stoner was the surprise bestseller of last year. First published in 1965, this deeply moving story of a lifelong academic at a middling American university was told with such subtlety that it took half a century to win the recognition it deserved. Williams’s earlier work Butcher’s Crossing (1960), reissued at the beginning of 2014, has been similarly neglected. A meditative cowboy yarn with a putative ecological message, it could not be more different from Williams’s campus novel; it is just as good.

Set in the 1870s, it follows Will Andrews as he emerges from Harvard College, head stuffed with Emersonian philosophy, and sets out West in search of adventure. Winding up in the titular Kansas town, he falls in with Miller, a hunter convinced that one last great herd of buffalo survives in a remote Colorado valley. Together with Schneider, a skinner, and Charley Hoge, a Bible-bashing souse, they find the herd and set about harvesting as many buffalo hides as they can before winter sets in. But as Miller slaughters the animals, Will is disabused of his romantic notions of frontier life.

It’s tempting to compare Williams’s novel to Cormac McCarthy’s similarly-titled The Crossing – both novels feature idealistic young protagonists who come to realise that if you gaze too long into the wilderness, it begins to gaze into you. But where McCarthy’s writing is lyrical, complex, Williams’s is as clear and limpid as a mountain stream. It would be spoiling things to reveal what happens when the gang brings its haul of hides down from the valley, but suffice it to say that, as in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, nature finds a way of reclaiming what’s been taken from it. And indeed Butcher’s Crossing deserves to rank with Hemingway’s in the canon of American greats.

*****

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions £11.99)

The literary cognoscenti have been abuzz with so-called “Ferrante Fever” in 2014, and with good reason. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third instalment in the Italian novelist’s “Neopolitan” series, is one of the best books of this or indeed any year.

The saga traces the diverging paths taken by two school friends from the late 1950s to the present day: Elena emerges from their working-class district in Naples to attend university and pursue a literary career, while Lila, more volatile but no less brilliant, chooses to remain. This volume catches up with the story in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Lila becomes involved in leftist politics and Elena becomes frustrated with her marriage. Ferrante’s reclusiveness has sparked speculation about whether her work is autobiographical. But such gossip is surely irrelevant. Ferrante is creating one of the great achievements in modern literature, an inter-generational saga of truly Tolstoyan sweep and ambition.

*****

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing (Canongate £10.99)

Olivia Laing’s haunting book asks why some of America’s greatest writers, from John Cheever to F Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway to Tennessee Williams, succumbed to alcoholism. Laing describes her travels across the US, describing her visits to these writers’ old drinking dens and weaving in her own experiences of growing up in a family damaged by alcohol. “Echo Spring” is the name given to the liquor cabinet in Tennessee Williams’s Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Laing finds the name symbolic of the “attainment of silence” that these authors sought at the bottom of a glass – although in the end she concedes that the connection between writing and drink is a mysterious one. It’s a moving, troubling, gorgeously written book.

*****

The Infatuations by Javier Marias (Bloomsbury £8.99)

The Spanish novelist Javier Marias caused something of a stir in 2014 with an essay enumerating seven reasons why people should give up on writing fiction and do something more useful with their lives. Thankfully, he ignores his own advice. The Infatuations, Marias’s most recent novel, has a thriller-ish premise. The narrator is a young woman who observes a handsome married couple meet at her local café each morning; one day they fail to show up, and it transpires that the husband has been brutally murdered. Befriending the widow, Maria is drawn into a slightly sinister love triangle. It is Marias’s characteristically meticulous prose that makes this book remarkable.

*****

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall (Mariner Books £11.99)

The writer and philosopher Margaret Fuller has long been unfairly overshadowed by her friends and contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Megan Marshall’s account, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2014, has helped to put that right. Fuller was born in Boston in 1810. Her gender meant she was barred from attending Harvard College, but became editor of the The Dial, the journal of the transcendentalist movement. Later, she became a foreign correspondent for the New-York Tribune. In Europe, Fuller fell in love with an officer in the Roman Guard, but her happiness was short-lived: she and her young family died when their ship sank while en route to America in 1850.

*****

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