Saturday, May 1, 2021

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.

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