“How False it all seemed”: The Book you expected to
suck, which didn’t
There’s a scene in Charles Bukowski’s great coming-of-age novel, Ham on Rye, in which the protagonist Henry Chinaski discovers the magic of books. I can’t quite remember if he discovers, a la Bradbury, how to stay drunk on the words before or after he discovers the joys of being literally drunk, but it happens sometime in mid-pubescence, while Hank is going through hell. He breezes through Faulkner and Hemingway, finding himself a bit stumped by the former but counting himself an acolyte of the latter (at first at least; Bukowski always went back and forth with Hemingway). He encounters the works of John Dos Passos, and pronounces them not great, but good enough, which is about right. At one point he gets his hopes up after finding a book with the title Bow Down to Wood and Stone, but he soon realizes that the content cannot live up to the title. Then he discovers D.H. Lawrence. It’s a story about a pianist who’s slowly losing his mind. How false it all seemed at first, Hank muses. But as he reads on, he realizes that the tale is a very worthy one indeed. I think we’ve all had a similar experience. There’s a book or a writer whose work we may look at askance, as perhaps a bit precious or pretentious, or just boring, and yet we start the work, however reluctantly, only to discover that it is in fact damn good. My moment came when I encountered the book Stoner, by John Williams. I never would have sought it out on my own, but for some reason my father sent it to me sometime during my last year in the Army. At that time I was stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, running out the clock on my contract with Uncle Sam, whose lease on my weary soul was about to expire. I was also trying to become a writer, and if Stephen King’s old quip about cashing a check for a story makes one talented, I guess I was also talented. Or at least talented enough to pay for a cab ride or stuff a sizeable tip into a stripper’s G-string. During that last fateful year of my time in the Army, first year of my literary career (if you can call it that), I had developed a bit of a strip club habit that threatened to spiral out of control into a full-blown addiction. But that’s a story for another day, or frankly one that doesn’t even need telling. Each Friday after final formation, I’d fall out, hail a cab, and go to a hotel, where I would proceed to write a short story. I’d polish up the short story on Saturday, maybe send it out Saturday night, and then head back to base and my barracks to get ready for the next week as a regular Joe in an air defense artillery battalion. Of course during those weekends at the La Quinta hotel, I’d have to pause to eat (usually at the Village Inn) and sleep, and I’d also do some reading in my downtime. Mostly I read Philip Dick, Joe Haldeman, or maybe some Gary Philips if I was in the mood for something pulpy rather than a mind-bending bout of SF. Out of respect to my father though, and with some trepidation, I started Stoner. How false it all seemed, the most cliched and depressing grist for a literary writer too respectable to tell a story with plot, action, and all of those other base elements that go into making something actually entertaining. Yes, Stoner was that dread and musty artifact of that most rarified of the literary classes: a campus novel. What’s the old Haldeman quote? “Bad books on writing tell you to ‘WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW’, a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.” William Stoner is a young man who goes to college at the University of Missouri in order to study agriculture. At some point during his undergrad years he discovers Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73. Reading about bare tree branches trembling in the cold gives young Stoner a sort of epiphany, and he decides to get his MA in English instead of returning back to the family farm to make stuff grow. At this point I thought I had an idea how the novel would unfold. Stoner’s changing of his major would be a source of tension between him and his salty old yeoman planter of a father. He’d meet a young coed who’d eventually become a henpecking wife whose scolding or cold indifference would send him running into the arms of another young coed when he himself was no longer so young, and so on and yada-yada. Here’s the thing, though. Most of that didn’t happen. Instead the focus of the book tightened to become about Stoner’s quiet faith in the ostensibly humble life he had chosen for himself. There are interdepartmental intrigues with dishonest and conniving profs, and students whose ambition and mendacity are far more well-honed than their creative faculties or passion for poetry. There are major historical events that sweep through the larger world, but merely cast their shadows over the university, resulting in manpower shortages on the homefront that makes Stoner’s path through the professional ranks perhaps a bit easier than it otherwise might have been. But Stoner doesn’t politic well and so a sinecure or even a well-earned cushy seat remains well out of reach. And, yes, there is tension between Stoner and his wife, especially as concerns the rearing of their daughter, but the novel remains centered on the vault of the man’s unbroken mind, where his faith in the words is never destroyed. The book makes its case for the moral rectitude of Stoner’s position without a bunch of loud or obvious melodramatic scenes. Most of what Stoner thinks remains just that, thoughts unuttered but nurtured until his convictions become nigh-religious. His refusal to be swept up in the massive, epoch-changing events of his time (the Great War, the Great Depression, the Bombing of Pearl Harbour) causes the seemingly minor events of his life to assume a grandeur such minor victories deserve, but which we rarely if ever afford them. “War,” as Thomas Mann once observed, “is the coward’s evasion of the problems of peace.” I might not have believed that before I joined the Army and went to Iraq, but I certainly believed it afterwards. War, as bad as it is, divides one’s life into easily separable “before” and “after” periods, unburdening it of the complexities that unbroken continuity brings to life as most people live it: the unrelieved pressures of work, home, work, the cultivating of relationships, the repairing of them when they’re damaged, the acceptance of their state as irreparable when we recognize that they can’t be mended. All of this is hard to deal with, complicated, messy. War is undoubtedly messy (debriding a wound takes forever) but it’s simple and straightforward and it is something that by its very intense nature confers a meaning on a life, even if that meaning is cliched, and frankly at root a lie. Stoner, as Steven Almond pointed out in his fine study of the work, is about genuine bravery as it is quietly exercised, rather than as it is commonly construed and loudly proclaimed. There’s something about the pacing and quality of Stoner that made it immensely readable. It was by no means a page-turner in the traditional sense, and yet the way the author controlled the unfolding of time, dilating a moment between Stoner and a student here, contracting a season or the duration of a World War there, made it feel as if the reader were being given a peek into the mechanism of time as it is actually viewed from the outside, by a deistic god or whatever great timekeeper exists beyond the Veil of Maya. Imagine an elder being (less eldritch than one of those in Lovecraft’s bestiary) letting us view a human through the lens of deep time and you’re in the neighborhood of the strange and frankly miraculous feeling the book evokes. As someone once said of the Stanley Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon, it captures the shape of a life, not with a plodding dogged Dickensian determination. It’s not in the tradition of epics that take us from someone’s childhood to old age, but rather uses the fine-honed eye of a miniaturist or a jeweler who knows exactly where to look and what to overlook. Not only is it an engrossing, quick read; it is actually a fairly short novel, which makes the wealth of its content all the more remarkable. Reading Stoner I felt like the boy in Michael Ende’s The Never-Ending Story (or maybe it was just the movie version), who kept shaking his head as he read deeper into the tale of Atreyu and discovered that the young and intrepid hero was aware of the boy reading of his adventures. That’s impossible. It should have been impossible: a book about a guy who starts agricultural school, who switches his major upon reading the Bard, and then proceeds to spend his life teaching, waging some kind of internal and silent battle against the forces of the world which seem to take scant notice of him and his humble doings. I think I read the whole book that weekend at the hotel, never once understanding exactly what trick or strange twist of magic made it so readable when I had expected to chuck it down after a few pages, politely evading any questions my father might ask about its contents, should our twice-monthly phone conversations stray toward the book he’d gifted me. I doubt I got any writing done that weekend at the hotel, but I know that, had I written rather than reading Stoner, it would have been a much poorer use of my time.