Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reading group: Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

John thought it pretty ironic that after criticising his choice of The Men's Club as an old-fashioned and irrelevant portrayal of men and masculinity, Mark should immediately suggest a Western.

In fact, John Williams didn't want his publisher to label Butcher's Crossing as such, and thus fix it in a genre pigeonhole, and having read and generally admired his later and best-known book, Stoner, the rest of us in the group expected a subversion of the genre along the lines we had found in Cormac McCarthy's later and magnificent Blood Meridian.

To some extent our expectations were fulfilled. The chief way in which Butcher's Crossing subverts the genre, and which must have seemed fairly radical at the time of first publication (1960), is to portray the Wild West as utterly devoid of heroism and glamour, to present it rather as a numbing world of grime, hard graft and constant near-death. Protagonist Will Andrews is a university drop-out, a devotee of Emerson, filled with the vague and romantic notion of finding in the Wild West a truer life and his own truer self. In 1873 he comes to Butcher's Crossing, a shanty settlement erected for the trade in buffalo hides. Due to the overhunting of buffalo, the source of hides is beginning to dry up, but it turns out that the hardbitten hunter Miller knows of a hidden untouched valley in the Rocky Mountains where the buffalo still roam en masse. In pursuit of his personal mission, Andrews sinks a good deal of his inheritance in equipping a hunting expedition by Miller, himself and two others to this valley.

We now embark with the four men on a gruelling trek with horses and oxen-pulled wagon as the stubborn Miller insists on leaving the watercourse for a straight course towards the mountains across a baking plain, seems to lose his way, endangering their lives, and eventually finds it. Following the perspective of the neophyte Andrews, we are taken through the minutiae of every gruelling process, the setting up of camps, the handling of the animals, the preparation and cooking of the meagre food, and the physical discomfort as they ride, Andrews' thighs chafing, in the baking sun. Finally they reach the mountains and - again, after worrying uncertainty - find the valley, and new gruelling experiences are in store: firstly, for Andrews, the killing and skinning of the buffalo, and then, for all of the others, the obsession of Miller who is unable to stop shooting the buffalo which, unused to men, simply stand to be picked off. The skins pile up, far more than they will ever be able to carry back on the wagon, and the autumn creeps on, bringing snow that will trap them in the valley all winter...

Andrews' reaction to all of this - his initial shock and his slow numbing - create a psychological dimension that is another subversion of the Western genre, but the whole thing is in many ways extremely traditional, a heavily event-based linear narrative with everything described objectively in the minutest detail. Doug, Jenny and I had found much of the detail very interesting - everyone was as fascinated as Andrews by the way Miller made bullets, for instance - but we all felt that there was far more of it than was necessary in a narrative, and that its accumulation amounted to tedium. For this reason Ann and John had both given up on the book fairly early on. I have to say it took me ages to read it - I found myself reading really slowly - and Jenny said that she hadn't actually liked it as she found the graphic descriptions - of the skinning of the buffalo, for instance - unpleasant to read. Doug and I were both amazed by the description of the way the buffalo behaved and fell once they had been shot, but I said that at that point I wondered: is it actually true, or is it simply a feat of imagination on the part of the author? I then realised that the book was prompting me to read it in the wrong way, ie as a manual rather than a fiction, and I felt I'd rather read the source material myself in order to know the veracity of what was being described. There was one moment when I stopped reading at the inappropriateness of such description. As a life-threatening blizzard comes down on the men, Miller frantically struggles to create shelters out of buffalo hide, and the way that he does so is described minutely in a way that is simply not compatible with the panicking psychology of the occasion - Andrews would probably have had difficulty even seeing what Miller was doing, leave alone carefully noting the process.

It was also thought that, in spite of Andrews' psychological journey, the other men were stock Western characters - Miller the tacit gritty John Wayne type, Schneider the bad-tempered loose cannon, and Charlie Hogue, the Bible-reading drunk driving the wagon.

I said that for all that actually happens in the book event-wise, and the simplicity of the psychology, it could have been done as a short story rather than the 330+ page book that it is. On the other hand, it would have been difficult via a short story to recreate the gruelling tedium which the length of this book certainly does, and there was a brief discussion of the difficulty of writing about tedium without actually being tedious.

People also started to feel that there wasn't as much veracity as at first seemed: why, if Miller was such a brilliant hunter, did he make the mistakes he did? Wouldn't he have known, for instance, not to pile the wagon so high with skins for the homeward journey - as I read it, I was thinking, no, no, I wouldn't pile it that high! - and wouldn't he have known that the river would have been too swollen with melting spring snow to cross with the wagon, and wouldn't he have avoided doing so? Clearly the authorial purpose was to subvert the way that in the traditional Western heroic cowboys always defeat the odds, but we felt it wasn't actually psychologically or factually realistic that Miller would get in such a situation. Why, if every detail of how the men subsisted had to be told, were the facts of defecation and urination left out, and why was Andrews, who had lived in the wild with these men for six months or more, prissily shocked when asked to urinate with the others in a kettle to soften leather for thongs? It seemed a bit like the squeamishness of an academic author... And when Andrews, who has for months been in close contact with dying buffalo, hunkers down in his buffalo-hide sleeping bag to withstand the blizzard, why is this the first time that he feels a parasitic insect crawl on his skin and bite him? People were very affected by the fact that when Andrews finally gets back to Buffalo Crossing and bathes, the dirt peels off him in scrolls and he is revealed to be covered in insect bites, but wouldn't he in fact be covered in living ticks and lice? And how did the horses and oxen survive when they had to be let loose in the valley for the winter, any grass left from the hot summer long buried in deep banks of snow? And, as Jenny said, where were the wild animals? Charlie Hogue lays strychnine for wolves, but they never see any, and why is there no mention of mountain lions or bears?

And where, asked Mark in provocative disappointment, were the Indians? (Although it was he who had suggested the book, circumstances had prevented him from reading it after all.) Jenny, laughing, told him off for his diction, and John - previously accused by Mark as a purveyor of old-fashioned masculinity - snorted. We did then however consider the lack of Native Americans encountered on the men's journey. At one point a small group near a watercourse watch passively as the expedition passes, and Miller comments that they are 'not worth killing any more'. The implication is that the Native Americans had been defeated and cleared from the area before 1873 when the action of the novel takes place, but in view of the doubts we had above, and the fact that Native Americans defeated the army at the Battle of Little Bighorn only three years later, people wondered about the veracity of this too.

As John said, the theme of this novel mirrors that of Stoner in which the protagonist survives a life of disappointments through sheer stoicism. Butcher's Crossing ends in disappointment, and Andrews' mistaken idealism has been replaced by a stoical understanding of the futility of much human endeavour. However, although no one could deny that the prose of this book is superb, spare and understated but vivid and ringing with clarity, and that the descriptions of landscape and weather were breathtaking, as John also said, it lacks the passion of the (presumably more autobiographical) Stoner which by comparison is Williams' masterpiece.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

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