“Stoner” is the name of a novel (1965) by a writer named John Williams who taught English literature at University of Denver and who is not very well known among the pantheon of famous novelists. It came to my attention by reading a review of it in last Sunday’s New York Times which you can read for yourself here.
It arrived via my Amazon Prime account and I’m almost finished reading it. As noted in the review, it’s the life story of a man named William Stoner who teaches English literature at the University of Missouri and what happens in his life. What is engaging about reading and thinking about it is that some people in our culture would ask why it’s worth spending time reading about a “loser.” While others see it as a “perfect novel” about an ordinary person’s life, illuminating for readers that things do not always end up well and people do not always end up living “happily ever after” as our Walt Disney culture is wont to press upon us.
In fact, it is this counter-culture kind of attitude and tone that I relished reading about in this handbook of a novel. The writer describes the excruciating viciousness of academia politics which many know firsthand and which illustrates how petty people can be about power. Undoubtedly, these struggles occur everyday in politics everywhere and even in small town civic groups of volunteers which I have some knowledge about myself.
William Stoner was fortunate. He was able to pursue his love of English and literature and make it into a lifelong profession rather than being forced to be a farmer living out a hardscrabble life like his father’s. He loved his wife even though she turned her back on him shortly after they married, keeping his only daughter from being close to him. He cleaned the house, took care of the baby, did the chores and prepared his lessons. His spouse chose to be distant from him while living off him until he died.
He also loved and was truly loved by someone other than his wife. They had a brief time together, one of personal integrity, a triumph over the odds of people bent on destroying them because they were happy. He was full of dogged fortitude in standing up for his beliefs even when it inured his enemy to become even more vindictive than thought possible over a long period of time. And then he dies.
Many of us subscribe to the “happily ever after” model of the American Dream. We think that if we only hope and work hard towards our dreams that eventually they will come true. Along the way are pitfalls, things that happen that become water under the dam that we don’t speak about and sooner or later, we look back to see if we feel good about how our life turned out or not.
If we have been lucky, we will accept what we see in the dry way that William Stoner did. He realized when things did not turn out the way he wanted them to and he kept going. Most of all, he did what he really wanted to do–which was to be a teacher even if he was not the most popular or highly regarded professor. And he was deeply loved by another person even if they were not able to be together for very long.
Life is full of people who take a dislike to us for reasons we don’t understand. It also introduces us to people who love us even when we are difficult to get along with. When I look around at the people who struggle to make ends meet and who look to find some solace in their everyday schedules, I wonder about how many stories like “Stoner” there are or might have been.
If you want to ruminate about what life is all about, you wouldn’t do badly to pick up this book at the library or read it on an airplane when you’re on your way from here to there.