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In his National Book Awardwinning novel Augustus, John Williams uncovered the secrets of ancient Rome. With Butcher's Crossing, his fiercely intelligent, beautifully written western, Williams dismantles the myths of modern America.

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May 25, 2017

John Williams And The American Western

Two of my interests crossed paths and led me to read John Williams' novel, "Butcher's Crossing" (1960). First, I have become interested in literary American westerns, such as those written by A.B. Guthrie including "The Big Sky". Second, I became interested in Williams (1922 -- 1994) through reading his novel "Stoner". These interests in westerns and in Williams coalesced in "Butcher's Crossing".

"Butcher's Crossing" is a dark, thoughtful work framed by quotations from Emerson and Melville. The quotations offer competing views of nature and of optimism. The book is set in Butcher's Crossing, a small crossroads in Kansas in the early 1870s. The primary character, Will Andrews, 23, is the son of a well-to-do teacher and Unitarian minister. He has dropped out of Harvard and come west in search of what he perceives as "a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous." The other primary character is Miller, whom Andrews meets early in his stay. Miller is a tough, hardened buffalo hunter who in the novel is the Ahab to Miller's Ishmael. Andrews agrees to finance and participate in a buffalo hunt in the wilds of Colorado where Miller has observed large, pristine herds. Two other men participate in the hunt, Miller's friend, Charley Hoge, who has lost a hand, reads the Bible, and is alcoholic and Schneider, profane and cantankerous, but a hunter and expert skinner of buffalo. Two other important characters remain in Butcher's Crossing: Francine, a prostitute, and McDonald, a dealer in hides who had briefly known Andrews' father in Boston and participated in his Unitarian meetings.

The story is about the buffalo hunt and its impact, primarily on Andrews. Williams describes the long, dangerous journey to the mountains to find a large, unexploited herd. The center of the book describes in great detail the hunt of the buffalo and the wanton killing led by Miller. Virtually the entire herd is decimated with their bones and carcasses left to rot. The description is raw, harsh, and unforgettable. Williams describes how the four men get caught in a blizzard through their greed and killing and how, under Miller's leadership, they survive a furious winter. Then, the men return to a changed and near-deserted Butcher's Crossing with their labor, risk, and killing going for naught. The callow Andrews has been changed and has a brief, intense relationship with Francine, whom he had spurned before the hunt. The other men meet harsh fates as well through the hunt and the bitter winter and aftermath.

This is a darkly pessimistic novel about nature, about greed and lust, and about the dream and danger of searching to find oneself. Andrews comes to see the despair underlying his own life and the lives of those whom he meets in Butcher's Crossing. Near the end of the book, he reflects on his own decision to go west and on his short relationship with Francine:

"He could hardly recall, now, the passion that had drawn him to this room and this flesh, as if by a subtle magnetism; nor could he recall the force of that other 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 those passions had sprung."

Williams' writing is taut, descriptive, and largely understated. His novel takes some mostly formulaic western scenes and characters and transforms them through his writing and his insight. I don't find a tone of satire or mockery of the standard, formulaic western. Rather, Williams shows how this sometimes hackneyed form can have life and vision. With its questioning of what it sees as the superficial vision of the traditional type of western story, the book works to restate the power of the genre when used creatively. This book is multi-layered, dense, beautiful, and troubling. It rewarded the crossing of my interests in Williams and in the American western and made me want to think more about both.

Robin Friedman

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