Having just now finished John Edward Williams’ Stoner, I’m almost at a loss as to what to say about it. The novel may be the most pleasant kick in the teeth you’re ever likely to get.
William Stoner may be the saddest character in American literature. In any other story, such a passive character might elicit anger or apathy, but somehow I couldn’t stop wanting to know more about Stoner, about his struggles, about how he was going to be thwarted next time. And thwarted he was, over and over, in one of the best examples of (non-absurdist) existentialism I’ve ever encountered. The Universe doesn’t care about us, and Stoner is proof of that.
I wanted an explanation for why Lomax, the deformed (physically and mentally) department chairman went to such lengths to promote the obviously inept grad student Walker, but such an explanation was never given. Sadly, that’s too much like real life. Where did Walker go? We’re never told. I kept hoping that Lomax would be run over by a truck, but …
The evil of Lomax pales in comparison to Edith, Stoner’s cold-hearted bitch of a wife. This is where I almost lost it a few times. Okay, with Lomax you have to worry about your job (to a small degree since Stoner was a tenured professor), but when you can see that your wife is turning your daughter against you, dammit, you do something about it. Stoner didn’t.
And then there’s Katherine. Katherine who, for a while, made it all bearable. So sad.
Since the reader is told in the first paragraph that Stoner dies in the end, I don’t feel bad for putting in this quote from the last page: “A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.” If he was Alexander the Great, Ghandi, or even Steve Jobs this wouldn’t be so bad. But as we’re shown over and over again, William Stoner is just a guy who can’t catch a break, an insignificant speck being blown along the cosmic currents, and that makes this quote a real heart-breaker.
Or maybe it doesn’t. We are who we are, and we are all the heroes of our own stories, even if those stories don’t have the arc we might have hoped for when the page was fresher, the ink darker.
If I have one honest complaint it would be that the author kept telling things that would happen in the future, then slipping back into the present, which caused some confusion in the timeline of Stoner’s career and the age of his daughter.
I’m fully aware that instances from my own life and career(s) may have unduly influenced my love of this book and the enthusiasm of this review. Deal with it. Read the book. It’s beautifully written.