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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