Reading Note:
Butcher’s Crossing
16 April 2019

Over the weekend, I read John Williams’s 1960 novel, Butcher’s Crossing

I hadn’t heard of this book until a few weeks ago, when Leo Robson mentioned it in an essay on Williams in The New Yorker, occasioned by NYRB’s republication of Williams’s 1975 National Book Award co-winner, Augustus. I already knew something about Williams, having vaguely followed the low-key brouhaha about the rediscovery of his academic novel, Stoner, which I read in 2015. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Stoner, because it was set at the University of Missouri, and I’m an awful East Coast Snob. (In truth, I’m an Easterner whose academic sojourns in the Midwest taught me that life there would be a living death.) I was also depressed by the novel’s complaisance about the mortality of a humanist professor’s career. (Professors of literature deal in immortal subject matter.) But Robson’s comments about an “alternative canon,” in which the emotions excited by a work of fiction are brought about indirectly, without explicit mention, struck a nerve; I saw at once that the novels that I liked could be distinguished from the novels that I didn’t by just this rule alone. (It also explained why I’m bored by most of the mid-century American greats.) My first move was to re-read Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which Robson seemed to consider a reconciliation of the conflict. Perhaps that misrepresents Robson. In any case, I found that Herzog‘s device of offloading its hero’s exuberant romanticism onto imaginary, unsent epistles, while telling his story straight, was a successful balancing act. (Herzog was already my favorite Bellow.) 

Then I picked up Butcher’s Crossing. By this time, I had come across other reviews of the republished Augustus that also mentioned Butcher’s Crossing, so without much effort I was in the familiar position of knowing a fair amount about a book that I hadn’t opened. But of course that impression is always false. Reviews and passing summaries usually convey no more than the writer’s favorite plot bits. So while I knew that the hunting party in Butcher’s Crossing would be caught in the mountains by an early blizzard, forced to weather the winter with nothing to do (one reviewer mentioned cabin fever — no, it’s the blurb on the back cover!), I had no idea how important this ordeal would be for the protagonists — or for their story.

The novel is divided into three parts. The outer two take place in the meager settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a jumping-off place for buffalo hunters in the later years of Reconstruction. The central section follows the eccentric and daring hunt in which four men engage. The instigator, Miller, claims to have discovered a hidden valley in the Colorado mountains in which thousands of buffalo spend the summer. It has been eleven years since he made this discovery, and he has never succeeded in finding someone to bankroll his return. Insofar as Butcher’s Crossing has a hero, it is Will Andrews, the young Harvard greenhorn who rolls into town in search of Emersonian transcendence. It takes Andrews no time at all to decide to pay for and take part in Miller’s proposal. Miller takes Andrews’s money (not all of it) and repairs to a nearby town to buy provisions. While there, he also engages a seasoned buffalo skinner, Schneider. The fourth member of the party is Miller’s handicapped Number Two, the man who will drive the wagon driven by oxen and then do the cooking in camp. 

The narrative is of two types, which differ in relation to the passage of time. Numerous quite-long passages chronicle the events of a day, usually one dominated by a learning experience for Andrews, such as the first day of shooting buffalo (rather disturbing), which included Will’s introduction to skinning (much moreso). In others, the story fastens on actions and impressions that recur with a regularity that is monotonous for the characters but not to the reader. Most notably, Chapter VII of Part II covers the snowbound seven-month stay in the hidden valley — in a mere twenty pages. The following chapter, of about the same length, begins at an only slightly quicker level of detail as the men emerge from the melted snowdrifts to reorganize their animals and their equipment for the return to Butcher’s Crossing. The second half of this chapter describes the two-day descent from the mountain and the climax of the attempt to bring the wagon of buffalo hides across a river engorged with snowmelt. Although, throughout Part II, I learned more about the gruesomeness of buffalo hunting than I wanted to, I was never for an instant bored. Harrowed and upset, often; but never impatient. Considering the scope of its event, Butcher’s Crossing is a remarkably quick book. 

This is one of the secrets of its power. Early on in Part Two, there is a two-paragraph description of the benumbing of Will Andrews as the party traverses the Kansas plain. It is not very long, and I read it to Kathleen to suggest the impossibility of adapting the reality of Williams’s novel for film. “Day by day the numbness crept upon him until at last the numbness seemed to be himself.” (Real hardship, we ought to note, lies entirely in the future at this point.) Williams does not explore Andrews’s thoughts, but rather suggests that the young man has stopped thinking; instead of the emotions that Andrews might have felt in Boston, where he could afford to be heedless of his body, we are presented with the ever more limited responses of his body to the discomfort of riding a horse through endless terrain. We respond with plenty of emotions of our, but the prose is clear and dry, and as unlikely as possibly to strike different readers in different ways. 

Almost as astonishing as Williams’s ability to conjure the horror of The Heart of Darkness in language as level-headed as a newspaper account (but don’t try this at home, young ‘uns!) is the complete absence from Butcher’s Crossing  of the classic emotional engine of action fiction, especially of Westerns: betrayal. There is no deceit, no personal falsity, no misconduct either venial or criminal. Nobody takes unfair advantage of anybody (although Schneider constantly accuses Miller of doing so). There is hubris, to be sure, but without genuinely shameful behavior to darken it, such high-octane foolishness seems almost as innocent as virtue. If you give somebody you’ve never met before the money to make some purchases at the dry-goods store across the road, he’ll return with whatever it was that you wanted and some change. At no point is Butcher’s Crossing the tale of a dude being taken for a rube. Andrews’s contact in Butcher’s Crossing, a dealer in hides who doesn’t want him to join Miller’s party, nevertheless warns him to do everything that Miller tells him to do, and this turns out to be very sound advice. The purity of heart common to the men (and one woman) of Butcher’s Crossing creates a sort of negative frustration, an imaginative freedom that takes its deepest breath when the novel is finished. 

One caution about finishing Butcher’s Crossing: try to avoid letting it happen at bedtime, when everyone else is asleep. The immediate aftertaste is one of vast desolation. This is not really Williams’s doing. It is simply the slag of dreadful emotions that he has conjured and dismissed. Midnight is not the best time for saying goodbye to Will Andrews. 

Except for the general direction he took, he did not know where is was going: but he knew that it would come to him later in the day. He rode forward without hurry, and felt behind him the sun slowly rise and harden the air.

Note the position of the sun: a real Western. 

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