But okay, no, for serious: Stoner by John Williams

But okay, no, for serious: Stoner, by John Williams, is a great book, and is one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year, or even in the last several years. In part because of context: I was working on my next book review when I read this one, and I’d read that book once, the review title book, and that one did things to me that I could not entirely define for myself yet, and so I knew I’d need to read it again, but I didn’t want to read it again immediately–I needed to step away from it, for a moment, the way you might step away from a mirror only to return to it later to find yourself familiar in some surprising way, like deja vu refracted through a glass of thick water. And that review title does a whole bunch of complex things in intriguing ways, and for whatever reason, I picked up Stoner off the perpetually one-foot-tall TBR pile, and, I mean, it’s cliche to say you can’t stop reading a book, but, like love, it’s so damn real and completely not cliche when you’re actually in it, all the more so since I hadn’t been in that specific place in a while, it seemed like–I mean, I’d read some other good books earlier this year, but usually in a, well, this is great, but I can also go rack up some trophies on the PlayStation, too, and have a good time tonight as well, right? Not so, with Stoner. I spent my days at work looking forward to going home so I could read more of it. This book reminded me that I had forgotten slightly just what the fig leaf a good book is supposed to do: strip away your modesty, leave you emotionally naked before it, make you need it. It is a book that makes you become a person. And this from a book that from its opening paragraph seems like it’s got jack-all to do or go toward–I mean, it lays out the fact in the opening paragraph that the title character lives a life and then he dies and it didn’t much matter to anybody except maybe to him. Which is pretty much a huge bummer but, what, now I have to read a couple hundred more pages about this fellow? No. Please. But! The thing is, the opening paragraph is a feint, or perhaps a huge lie; because, yes, spoiler alert, you are reading about the life of a guy who will, by the end of the book, die, except, in the time you spend with him, in the time you spend reading Williams’s perfectly reasonable, perfectly paced, perfectly rhythmic, perfectly unostentatious prose, he, Stoner, comes to mean a little more to you than most strangers ever will. At least, so it seemed to go for me. And it’s sad but it’s so strong. If I was the crying sort, I probably would have, around the time I finished. But I did not cry, and I set it down, and I returned to the book about which I was due to write a review, and I felt recharged, and refreshed, and ready to take this world of literature on again, one book at a time. My craving was reborn.

And so, tell me, please, because I would like to know: what book has done that for you?

Author: Darby

...is a reader, a litblogger, a critic, a design student, a fan of typewriters, a mediocre videogamer, an amateur painter, a dayjob holder, a guy, your new BFF.

4 thoughts on “But okay, no, for serious: Stoner by John Williams”

  1. This is lovely: “…what the fig leaf a good book is supposed to do: strip away your modesty, leave you emotionally naked before it, make you need it.”

    I think the last time I experienced something like this was with Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, which is a book that I think is underrated even among its fans. It’s both gut-bustingly hilarious and kind of devastatingly profound in how it strip-mines memories of high school and adolescence for its story of fuck-ups behaving badly. I mean, that description probably makes it sound like a million other things, but it’s so not, and the voice is so completely unlike any other voice in literature, and it’s so fucking dexterous in its shifts between funny and sad and angry and horrifying and bemused and lovesick and HUMAN and did I mention hilarious? Yeah. Check it out.

  2. To answer your question: Well, STONER did it for me as well. And I’ve been hoarding my copy of his BUTCHER’S CROSSING for when I need another shot in the arm.

    And of course REMAINDER, and CLOUD ATLAS. To some degree, THE NEW YORK TRILOGY, though a bit of the shine on that one has worn off over time.

  3. I had a similar experience with Matthew Sharpe’s YOU WERE WRONG — a book that, if Athitakis’s gutless thumbs down is any indicator, any sign of a man terrified of wading beyond his “Revolutionary Hill Estates” mindset, outside his reading comfort zone, will surely be reviled by the establishment for daring to take chances on every page — nay, every paragraph! Lo, it is a wonder to read! Strange murder, odd character displacement, a narrative voice that translates the familiar into something odd and exotic until, when one reaches the final page, the question of verisimilitude is moot. This is a novel that does what fiction is supposed to do — synthesize reality through a perspective so that we cannot see things the same way again! I could not stop macheting through this surreal, hyperreal syntactic jungle! Glorious terrain to be excavated, curious usage of the word “redoubled” and all. And for those who view the novel as some kind of trinket, some easily filled in crossword puzzle (nothing wrong with that, yo, but you have to read beyond your own personal limits), Sharpe will frighten, vex, annoy, and otherwise shake the reader (that is, the lily-livered “American Fiction” kind who can’t ken a world beyond the New York Times bestseller list) out of his complacency. Much recommended, although I suspect I will be one of the few to sing sharp notes in a major key about Good Ol’ Matthew, who has come through far beyond, far exceeding the amazing JAMESTOWN.

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