The “Anti-Gatsby”

Tim Kreider praises John Williams’s Stoner as “a great, chronically underappreciated American novel”:

“Stoner” is undeniably a great book, but I can also understand why it isn’t a sentimental favorite in its native land. You could almost describe it as an anti-“Gatsby.” … Gatsby’s a success story: he makes a ton of money, looks like a million bucks, owns a mansion, throws great parties, and even gets his dream girl, for a little while, at least. “Stoner”‘s protagonist [William Stoner] is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, drudges away in a dead-end career, dies, and is forgotten: a failure. The book is set not in the city of dreams but back in the dusty heartland. It’s ostensibly an academic novel, a genre historically of interest exclusively to academics. Its values seem old-fashioned, prewar (which may be one reason it’s set a generation before it was written), holding up conscientious slogging as life’s greatest virtue and reward. And its prose, compared to Fitzgerald’s ecstatic art-nouveau lyricism, is austere, restrained, and precise; its polish is the less flashy, more enduring glow of burnished hardwood; its construction is invisibly flawless, like the kind of house they don’t know how to build anymore.

“Part of Stoner’s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair,” continues Kreider:

Stoner realizes at the last that he found what he sought at the university not in books but in his love and study of them, not in some obscure scholarly Grail but in its pursuit. His life has not been squandered in mediocrity and obscurity; his undistinguished career has not been mulish labor but an act of devotion. He has been a priest of literature, and given himself as fully as he could to the thing he loved. The book’s conclusion, such as it is—I don’t know whether to call it a consolation or a warning—is that there is nothing better in this life. The line, “It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial,” is like the novel’s own epitaph. Its last image is of the book falling from lifeless fingers into silence.