Stoner, by John Williams
John Williams’ 1965 novel went out of print after selling only 2,000 copies, but since its re-release by Vintage in 1995, this novel of a Midwestern academic’s insular life has appeared on bestseller lists in Europe and Israel, and has since sold over 100,000 copies. Stoner seems at first an unlikely candidate for a sleeper hit, given it’s a quiet, perfectly-crafted novel, a deeply interior portrayal of a University of Missouri professor’s life and death. And yet, the story of William Stoner is made of many stories. It’s a story about a boy who grows up working on his parents’ farm rural Missouri, until his father, who wants something better for his son, sends him to university in Columbia to study agriculture. It’s about the student, Stoner, who encounters his first works of literature, and to his parents’ dismay, changes his major, leaving agriculture for a life of reading and writing. It’s about, in a way, taking a path you hadn’t expected, and finding one that offers a deeper, more reflective life. Stoner earns his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s and his doctorate in literature. Soon, he’s offered a tenured position:
“So Stoner began where he had started, a tall, thin, stooped man in the same room in which he had sat as a tall, thin, stooped boy listening to the words that had led him to where he had come.”
With each step of the young Stoner’s development, we see the course of his life separate from its starting point, distancing him from his parents while steering him into the social and cultural world of the university. That includes marriage to a young woman, Edith, that produces a child, a daughter, Grace. We see the disappointment that is charted through his marriage, and as a father, finding in the child Grace a friend, but an increasing stranger as she grows up, the result of his wife’s machinations to keep them from being close.
The novel is also one about knowledge, showing us how it can at times be elusive, and how the process of accrued knowledge, coupled with its investigation, brings satisfaction despite the solitude of the inquiry:
“Almost from the first, the implications of the subject caught the students, and they all had that sense of discovery that comes when one feels that the subject at hand lies at the center of a much larger subject, and when one fells intensely that a pursuit of the subject is likely to lead—where, one does not know.”
For Stoner, critical clarity and the understanding that comes with study are essential principals, a view that leads him, at mid-career, to question the thesis interview of a favorite doctoral student of the powerful department chair, Hollis Lomax. Stoner may not be the department star, but his respect for the facts means far more than a thesis of all style and little substance—a view that leads Lomax to sabotage Stoner, and brings his career to a professional standstill, relegating his schedule to undesirable rudimentary courses despite his seniority.
There is a mythic quality to Stoner, the under-recognized and inward man, that filters into his private observations—as here, in one of the book’s most lyric passages. Working late one night in his office, he puts aside the endless stack of papers to be graded and sees the snow outside:
“On an impulse he switched out the light on his desk and sat in the hot darkness of his office; the cold air filled his lungs and he leaned toward the open window. He heard the silence of the winter night, and it seemed to him that he somehow felt the sounds that were absorbed by the delicate and intricately cellular being of the snow.”
Trapped in a bleak marriage, stonewalled in his job, Stoner finds brief happiness with a student, Katherine Driscoll, and for a time, the affair seems to right the trajectory. Though Lomax scotches that too. In the bleak years that follow, Stoner’s life grows smaller, the result of a sudden illness that ages him, a stilted relationship with his now adult daughter, and his once hallowed home office dismantled by Edith.
Reading John William’s deliberate, vivid sentences, I heard John Updike, Richard Yates, and Richard Ford, writers who, like Williams, excel at portraying men who confront unfairness, bitterness, sometimes cruelty. Stoner may not seem like an uplifting story, but the prose, as much as the penetrating story, provides more than enough satisfaction on the page.