Book review: Stoner

Stoner (1965) is a novel by John Williams about the life of a man with humble beginnings who pursues a degree in agriculture to improve his family's farm. His plans, however, quickly change when he discovers the beauty of the English language and the humanities in a required English course taught by the unforgiving yet warm Arthur Sloane. Encouraged by his mentor and his fascination for the structure found in texts of the past, he forgoes his agricultural destiny and becomes an instructor of English at the University of Missouri. Over the course of this novel, which occurs during two World Wars and the Great Depression, we see William Stoner grow and learn about himself and the world around him. His life takes a unfortunate tragic course with tantalizing honest and hopeful moments. Stoner never fails to try his best given the circumstances. His passion towards for his work and his principled approach to his life stand in grave contrast to the people around him and the unfortunate circumstances he finds himself in. This is the tale of a good man, of unsung heroes, of the injustice the world can incur on those who are truly Good. I cannot recommend this heart-wrenching novel enough.

Stoner reads like an exercise in literary minimalism. Williams rarely uses words suggesting emotional states, goals, plans, motives, or beliefs. Yet one can't help but perceive these in all of his characters. The looming sense of exasperation about the state of the world and the unfortunate timing of events which occur suffocates our minds with rage. An unquenched thirst for justice and redemption for Stoner only grows as the novel proceeds. Williams tempts us with moments of stability which allow Stoner to pursue his passions and become his true self, yet these moments serve as mere appetizers, teasing the meal of justice which nevers arrives.

Throughout the novel, Williams cultivates a subtle terror that leads one to question their trust in humanity. Stoner's family and colleages are never evil, making us uncertain and confused in our desire to hate them. Williams never provides us a reason to believe that their conflicts with Stoner aren't earnest; The others want their child or their students to be happy and successful. Stoner feels an intense sorrow when he realizes that his wife's misguided and harmful actions towards their daughter are guided by a true love she feels for her child. The novel is filled with puzzling characters which are cleverly designed as blank slates for us to fill with the complexity of our lives.

I view this book as an ode to the quiet life. It romanticizes the precious moments of silence and solitude that Stoner experiences and serves as a celebration for anyone who would read such a novel in this age of fast moving online experiences.