Stoner – John Williams: a review

stoner - john williamsA couple of months ago, I opened a tote from our supplier and, mixed in with all of the familiar titles, was a Vintage classic I’d never seen before. Reading the title, my first assumption was that it was a biography of some feckless marijuana addict. After a quick glance at the blurb, I realised that it was an old American novel about the life of a college professor in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Oh.” I thought and promptly shelved it.

I forgot about it, categorising it in my head as a stuffy relic of little interest to anyone who isn’t a college professor.

Weeks passed until suddenly it exploded onto my Twitter feed. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and, for a good couple of weeks, I couldn’t check Twitter without seeing the hash-tag #weareallstonersnow accompanied by some evangelical recommendation. It seemed there was more to Stoner than I’d originally thought.

First published in 1965, John Williams’ Stoner charts the exploits and disappointments of William Stoner, farmer’s son and born-again literary enthusiast. When the opportunity arises to attend agricultural college, he reluctantly takes leave of his work on the land to learn better techniques for tending the soil turned and turned again by his forefathers.

It’s in the university that this green country-boy discovers literature and a new calling in life. At first, this world is elusive and almost impenetrable but he works hard, harder than his fellow students, to make up for a childhood without any literary influence outside of the Bible.

Soon, he meets Edith and unwittingly makes the biggest mistake of his life by falling in love and quickly marrying her.  Too late, he realises his folly but, ever the stoic, he accepts his lot and tries to make the most of a bad situation.

As the years wear on and wars come and go, William Stoner rises through the hierarchy of the college as a teacher eventually meeting adversity in the form of Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s colleague and nemesis.

Though his life is unremarkable, William Stoner can be included among the great literary heroes. He doesn’t fight in any war or solve any mysteries or rescue any damsels in distress but his triumph comes from his dogged forbearance of a less-than-kind life. He believes in the university as a sanctuary and continues to protect his principles even when his stubbornness proves detrimental to his career.

Though his life is riddled with failures, it’s Stoner’s minor victories that give us cause for celebration, not least because these are the successes we come to expect in our own mundane lives. After all, most of us will never be soldiers on a battlefield or historical figures of note. William Stoner is just a guy trying to do his job as best he can without inviting undue hassle. He isn’t a bust in a museum or the subject of a documentary – he’s one of us. With this fact in mind, it isn’t too bold to say that William Stoner may just be one of the most human protagonists you’re ever likely to encounter.

In conclusion, I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong in my prior assumptions about the book. It’s no stuffy relic but a forgotten treasure which deserves to be read by everyone and I look forward to the day when we can agree that we are all, indeed, Stoners now.

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