Friday, May 28, 2021

Review of Butcher’s Crossing by John Edward Williams

Butcher’s Crossing 
by John Edward Williams
(New York Review Books Classics, 1960)

and a Summative Note About the Fictions of John Edward Williams
By Greg Gilbert

Butcher’s Crossing  is Williams' second novel. The story begins in 1870s Kansas in the fictional town of Butcher’s Crossing. William Andrews, a Harvard student, is seeking adventure in the great outdoors. From the dusty tents and crudely constructed buildings of Butcher’s Crossing he embarks on a  buffalo hunt with three other men. Williams’ attention to detail, character development, and setting is meticulous. The New York Times Book Review said that Butcher’s Crossing “paved the way for Cormac McCarthy. It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western.” The Denver Post declared it “One of the finest novels of the West ever to come out of the West.”

In a sense, Butcher’s Crossing is Moby Dick set in the West. Not only is the narrator an innocent at the beginning of his life-altering adventure, but the expedition’s leader has an Ahab-like fixation, in this instance on amassing buffalo hides. And just as Moby Dick has been described as the first how-to-do-it novel, Butcher’s Crossing offers a treatise on Buffalo hunting: financing, tracking, killing, skinning and transporting the hides. Against this backdrop, characters are revealed by their circumstances. We know them through their longings, mental states, and interactions during routine as well as desperate conditions: days of unrelenting thirst, soul numbing hours at the hunt, a blizzard that author Jack London would have envied, and the physical, emotional toil of large-scale slaughter.

The decimation of the great herds is revealed from all sides, from that of an obsessive longing for wealth and adventure to the triviality of fashions that underwrite the hunts. Through the young protagonist’s narration, the reader witnesses the grandeur of virgin nature transformed to a macabre landscape of discarded and rotting buffalo carcasses, hides stacked until they sway, and the bovine simplicity of buffalo passivity and that of the oxen that pull the hides to the wholesaler. John Edward Williams’s writing balances detached clinical precision with sensory and emotional reality, perhaps in compensation for perceived excesses in his youthful novella, Nothing But the Night, published 12 years earlier when he was 22.

One may reasonably ask why a reader would wish to endure a depiction of large-scale animal slaughter. Aside from my personal fascination with John Edward Williams the writer, this is a story well told, set out with crisp, minimalist narration and memorable characterizations.

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Having now read all of Williams’s published fictions, including an unfinished manuscript, I mourn the works that will never be authored by him. His first published piece, Nothing But the Night, was written while he recovered from injuries suffered in combat. This 100 page novella is an existential, psychological labyrinth, a day-in-the life of Arthur Maxley, a traumatized survivor of a childhood horror. The flow of details, dramatic imageries, and psychosomatic states recall Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf with its mixes of crises and distorted realism. It is not a great book by any stretch, but worthy, particularly as it provides a glimpse into the early formation of the author’s art. At the other end of his life, the unfinished work, Sleep of Reason, was abandoned in his final days as he succumbed to congestive heart failure. The 44 pages that remain demonstrate his growing strength as a writer precisely when his physical body is weakening. The length and variety of his sentence structures, the patient setting up of characters and circumstances, and the background research that sets out to weave a tale about fine art collection and museum structures is a story that would be wonderfully relevant today given the massive art collection that the late Lee Kun-hee has bequeathed to a museum that will bear his name.

Among the reasons I am so taken with Williams, beyond his superb stories, is that his writing is accessible. One can readily appreciate his studied effort without being distracted by it. His prose rarely overreaches but seems to originate from a nearly perfect blend of heart and head. StonerAugustus, and Butcher’s Crossing provide fully developed characters. We come to know them well, and we see them change against their circumstances. At the end of each novel, and this may not be to everyone’s taste, there is time for reflection. Conventional wisdom says that writers should let the action do the talking, which Williams certainly does in his books, but he cannot resist summative reflections in his conclusions. These endings are, by my thinking, touchingly honest, an additional reason for me to feel a singular affection for this writer.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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Sunday, May 23, 2021

May Virtual "Open Readings"

Welcome to our May 2021 Shelter-In-Place Video "Open Readings". A huge thanks is due to all the folks who have participated either as audience or as featured readers in our Cholla Needles Zoom Shelter-In-Place readings. 

If you are browsing our pages, we consider YOU a part of our family and you are welcome to become part of Cholla Needles. Simply contact us at & send us your poetry, short stories, essays, photos and art for publication in our monthly magazine. 

Our readings in May started with Simon Perchik & Friends doing a book release party for the long awaited release of his Family Of Man Poems, which took over 30 years to appear after he had spent eight years composing the 600 pages of poems. The sheer size, which you'll hear Simon refer to as a "doorstop", made it difficult for even the most willing publishers to accept. Our research shows this is the largest original book of poetry in the English language. 

The next group of readings was hosted by John Brantingham, who also worked as editor of the May 2021 issue of Cholla Needles.   

Good Times!!! We are working right now to prepare to return to live readings in Joshua Tree, with a hopefully not too optimistic thought of early July 2021. Stayed tuned here or on facebook for announcements. In the meantime, enjoy the videos:

Simon Perchik on completing
The Family Of Man Poems

Simon Perchik on Bomber Moon (1950)

Simon Perchik reads 
This Coffee Is Still Learning

Gloria Mindock reads 
Two Poems by Simon Perchik

Marty Tucker reads 
If I Fly High by Simon Perchik

Vaughn Bergen reads 
Each Night The Longing
by Simon Perchik

Vaughn Bergen sings for Mother's Day

Marieke reads The Granite Has Sea In It
by Simon Perchik

Katherine reads
I Recline Into The Branches of a Wild Dream
by Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik reads Nothing Enters Painlessly

John Brantingham hosts the readers
of Cholla Needles 53, which he also edited:

Aruni Wijesinghe reads Two Poems

Tim Hatch reads Two Poems

Andrew Turner reads Two Poems

Kelsey Bryan-Zwick reads Two Poems

Scott Noon Creley reads Samaritan

Lloyd Aquino reads Two Poems

Thomas Thomas reads poems about
Edward Hopper Paintings

Daniel Cryns reads Three Poems

Kitty Anarchy reads Two Poems

Kendall Johnson reads Two Pieces

T Anders Carson reads Two Poems

John Brantingham thanks the readers
from Cholla Needles 53!

Romaine Washington reads
What's Your Story?

Cindy Rinne reads Light Searches Shadows

Heather Morgan reads Hiding

Ernest Alois reads Two Poems 
of the mountains

Greg Wyss reads Three Poems
from the 1970's

Alan Catlin reads Hair

Good Times!!! Thanks for watching!!!

Click here to check out all our "Shelter-In-Place" videos

Click here to check out all our "Big Read 2020" videos

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review of Augustus by John Edward Williams

by John Edward Williams
(New York Review Books Classics. 1972)

Reviewed by Greg Gilbert


Described by Goodreads as an “epistolary, historical fiction,” John Edward Williams Augustus begins just prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar and concludes at Augustus’ death, spanning his life in two sections, his rise and his governance. The Washington Post declared Mr. William’s book, “The finest historical novel ever written by an American.” Across the board, from amateur reviewers, such as yours truly, to highly esteemed professional reviewers, the acclaim for this book is enthusiastic, and appropriate.

This is a book for three readings, first for the sheer pleasure of its extraordinary unspooling of personalities and events; next, alongside historical/scholarly resources; and then, once again to take it all in as one. Finally, a fourth reading may be advisable, as I will soon explain.

Williams’ epistolary approach is interesting in that it permits a frame for each voice, not unlike that of a play but by employing journals and correspondences to reveal the dynamics of specific relationships and how they fit within the intrigues of Rome. Most interesting, the epistolary approach succeeds in ways that a play’s format cannot by moving through time. The arrangement of correspondences and journals is not confined to strict chronology, but, rather, crisscrosses the years with Augustus from 44 BC to 14 AD. Thus, while the central action ratchets forward, there are fascinating associations between cause and effect, the ways in which the parts of society interact and are shaped by a center that at any time may or may not hold, the role of Caesar, who, within this work, is both a man in every sense –and a god. The shifting chronologies provide ironic insights and teleologic understandings that allow the reader a feeling of prescience as the central story advances. A sizable cast, as in Russian literature, can become burdensome, but not so with Augustus. Much like life itself, the characters occupy their small universes of jealousy, love, and ambition, but in the background there is Rome, at once eternal and fragile, personified in the person of Augustus.

Augustus, like King Lear, is a tale that evolves with the age of the reader. While a younger and, perhaps, less patient reader may skim various reflections on age and youthful thought, the book’s ages-of-life considerations are respectful and wise, a delight for this septuagenarian. Having now read two of Williams’ four novels (Stoner and Augustus), I am resolved to read anything and everything of his that is available. By any measure that one might offer, Mr. Williams is an American master, one that I recommend most enthusiastically.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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Saturday, May 1, 2021

May Issue Released! Cholla Needles 53 =:-)

edited by John Brantingham
cover & inner art by Ann Brantingham

The creative words within are by:

Aruni Wijesinghe
Tim Hatch
K. Andrew Turner
Kelsey Bryan-Zwick
Scott Noon Creley
Lloyd Aquino
Thomas Thomas
Daniel Cryns
Kitty Anarchy
T. Anders Carson
Kendall Johnson

Click here to purchase a copy on-line ($5)

Keep up with our featured readers at our weekly Zoom Party every week.

Review of Stoner by John Edward Williams

by John Edward Williams

(New York Review Books Classics, 1965)

Reviewed by Greg Gilbert

“A beautiful, sad, utterly convincing account of an entire life…I’m amazed a novel this good escaped general attention for so long.” —Ian McEwan

Stoner is an unhurried, melancholy, and unadorned masterpiece, a treatise on the life of an Everyman, existential and, as reviewers have said, it offers us a figure from an Edward Hopper or Grant Wood painting, a still life, isolated, bent in his isolation, even among his students, family, and associates. Set in Missouri in the first half of the Twentieth Century, William Stoner is raised by quiet, hardscrabble farm people. He attends the state university to study agronomy with the intention of returning to the farm, but a literature class detours him toward scholarly pursuits. Beset by a loveless marriage, university politics, and an ill-fated romantic liaison, he lives a life shaped by small currents and long silences, all framed against a world of wars and the never-ending columns of new students, class prep, grading, and his enduring passion for literature. As readers, we accompany him from his youth until his death, and what may begin for some as a ponderous and uneventful reading experience will, as it has for many, transform into an accumulation of small tragedies and graces worthy of the most spiritual and accomplished of artistic works.

John Williams is increasingly recognized as an author of consequence. Stoner has been referred to by author Charles J. Shields as “the perfect novel,” and to my thinking, rightfully so. The author died in 1994 at age 71. He shared the National Book Award in 1973 for Augustus, set in the early days of the Roman Empire, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974.

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

More info