Wednesday, March 27, 2019

No more Butcher’s Crossing

Our household’s two-person Four Seasons Reading Club sometimes finds it necessary to leave a book unfinished. So it is with John Williams’s 1960 novel Butcher’s Crossing. We never made it out of the third chapter. By page 24 I began to tire of Williams’s approach to narrative:

In the darkness he walked across his room to the small table, which was outlined dimly beside the window. He found a match on the table and lit the lamp beside the washbasin. In the mirror his face was a sharp contrast of yellow brightness and dark shadow. He put his hands in the lukewarm water of the basin and rinsed his face.
Hemingwayesque, perhaps, but these actions, unlike, say, those of Nick Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River,” are inconsequential. There’s nothing behind them, at least not that I can see: everything in the novel is described with the same tedious exactness. And the writing — dimly, sharp contrast, dark shadow, of the basin — is kinda slack.

By page 27, I was squirming at the description of a character’s skin as “slightly yellowed and cured like smooth leather.” Yep, they’re going to go after buffalo. But it was a passage on page 30 that made me quit:
The sight of the whisky had calmed Charley Hoge; he took the glass in his hand and drank rapidly, his head thrown back and his Adam’s apple running like a small animal beneath the gray fur of his bearded throat.
That overwrought simile. And the narrator refers to this character by both first and last names every time he’s mentioned. Elaine, too, reached her limit on page 30, with a bit of corny dialogue about “whores”:
“Some of them even get married; make right good wives, I hear, for them that want wives.”
Them that want right good reading might look to Williams’s Stoner. But this novel of life out west, where men are men, and women are whores, and Adam’s apples run like small animals, isn’t it.

[John Williams’s four novels are now all available from NYRB.]

comments: 4

Frex said...

Oh, my. That (the small animal bit) is the kind of bad writing that (almost) has some genius to it, it's bad in such an original way.
The rest of it sounds like run of the mill mediocre bad writing.
Thirty pages seems more than enough.

Michael Leddy said...

Yep. We left him for Alice Munro.

Elaine said...

Never did explain how the water got warm.

Michael Leddy said...

Good call! The setting is a hotel room, so it must be water from the day before, when the hotel clerk brought hot water in. The weather is hot, so the water must not have cooled much.