Originally published in 1960 but reissued this year in England by Vintage, Butcher’s Crossing forms part of a loose trilogy of novels that also includes Stoner and Augustus and which have not only brought their author John Williams a little of the posthumous recognition he clearly deserves, but which might also go on to earn him a place as one of the finest American writers of the past century.
While stylistically and thematically all three novels differ from one another and occur during remote epochs, behind them all lies the same investigation into the essential emptiness of the human condition and the ultimate futility of all human endeavours. What marks Williams out for greatness, though, is that his subtle evocation of these concerns singes through the pages of his books without recourse to the consolation of an infantile, existentialist despair, or any nihilistic search for meaning.
Ostensibly, Butcher’s Crossing is a Western. Nonetheless, its relation to most other Western novels is somewhat like that of Georges Simenon’s romans durs to the crime genre, or J.G. Ballard’s ‘post-Freudian realism’ to sci-fi: in other words, tenuous at best. The story follows the son of a lay minister, Will Andrews, as he leaves behind the safe enclosure of his native Boston and travels West, where rather than seek out a clerical position as social expectations dictate might befit a man of his standing (three years at Harvard), he instead sets about arranging to go with a group of buffalo hunters into the wild.
Far from being a period piece, however, Butcher’s Crossing is utterly contemporary. Like many today who buy into the myth of self-discovery tangled up with industrial-scale tourism in exotic lands, Andrews believes his journey will sculpt ‘a truer shape of himself.’ Yet in reflection, this self turns out to be non-existent: ‘He could hardly recall, now, the passion…which had impelled him halfway across a continent into a wilderness where he had dreamed he could find, as in a vision, his unalterable self. Almost without regret, he could admit now the vanity from which (the passion) had sprung.’ Bit by bit amidst the hunt, Andrews discovers he has no identity, therefore no ‘truer shape’ or ‘unalterable self.’ Instead he begins increasingly to regard himself as a kind of nothingness, defined by gradients of sensation and the habits and rituals of each new terrain he comes provisionally to dwell in:
‘Day by day he felt the skin of his face hardening in the weather; the stubble of hair on the lower part of his face became smooth as his skin roughened, and the backs of his hands reddened and then browned and darkened in the sun. He felt a leanness and a hardness creep upon his body; he thought at times that he was moving into a new body, or into a real body that had lain hidden beneath layers of unreal softness and whiteness and smoothness.’
Later, while Andrews observes the head huntsman, Miller, himself an enigma, shooting buffalo, we are told that:
‘During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust and fury that toiled darkly within him – he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself…and he did not know who he was, or where he went.’
Often in surrendering to the illusory nature of self, it can become tempting to identify instead with a particular landscape, or with other animals aside from humans. Yet even this small support is closed off to Andrews. At various points the landscape is perceived to be empty and drained of substance, or else it eludes him in a chaotic state of flux whose changes are too swift and violent and unpredictable to be grasped by the mind. Even the reliance of the men on the buffalo, to begin with for game, then later for the warmth of their hides against blizzard winds, and the sustenance given them by their meat, permits no bond to be formed between hunter and quarry; for the buffalos themselves, as Andrews sees them, are ‘mere humps…dark rocks, without identity or shape.’
So much of what Andrews assumed to be his inner core, in fact, had been defined by ‘the country that had given him birth, had raised him in the shape he occupied and the condition that he had only begun to recognize.’ In the frontier settlement, while reflecting on his urban Boston, Andrews, like William Stoner in the eponymous Stoner and Emperor Augustus in Augustus, comes to view his past as little more than a dream. Subsequently, for months snowbound in the Rocky Mountains, he proceeds to comprehend even his life in the settlement of just a few months previously as having been led by that of a stranger.
The world itself is likewise strange, unknowable. After skinning the hide of a buffalo, Andrews has a presentiment of this incongruity, as he struggles to reconcile what before had been a ‘proud and noble’ beast ‘full of dignity’ now collapsed into ‘a length of inert meat.’ Still, it’s mostly his preconception of the buffalo that he’s carried with him from civilisation that causes his discomfort: ‘It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be.’ This rupture between the world as he’s been educated to see it for the purpose of social convention and the world as it’s apprehended directly by his sense-impressions, wastelands stalked out by the great poet Wallace Stevens, again seizes him after his return, when he moves in with a prostitute named Francine: ‘Gradually he came to look upon his frequent and desperate unions with Francine as if they were performed by someone else. As if from a distance, sightlessly, he observed himself and his sensations as he fulfilled his needs upon a body to which, meaninglessly, he attached a name.’
In the space of just three novels, John Williams created a unique body of work that defies categorisation. His books present a view of life in such a manner that after reading them, an imperceptible shift seems to have occurred in the brain. Mediating between the chasms inside ourselves and the surrounds of flesh which encase them, Butcher’s Crossing makes no pretence towards enlightenment. Instead we’re shown the limitations of human agency alongside the total otherness of the world; the same stark and forever indefinable state of being that Wallace Stevens opened up for his readers in The Rock. It’s a radical vision, at odds with the dominant political, economic, and artistic currents of Williams’ time, and that of our own, too; and one that’s all the more essential for being so.
About the author:
Christopher Brownsword is the author of two collections of poetry ‘Icarus was Right!’ (Shearsman Books 2010) and ‘Rise Like Leviathan and Rejoice!’ (Oneiros Books 2014), a novella ‘Blind-Worm Cycle’ (Oneiros Books 2013), and a novel ‘The Scorched Highway’ (Oneiros Books 2013). His latest work ‘Throw Away the Lights’ comprises a novel and a novella, and is available now from Oneiros Books.