Posted by: Jeanie F | May 15, 2015

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher

It’s not unusual for me to finish a book that I’ve loved and then look for another by the same author. That’s exactly what I did when I finished Stoner by John Williams. I discovered that Williams had written three novels – StonerAugustus (winner of the National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing. If you’ve ever perused the titles I’ve reviewed on this blog, it should be obvious that stories of the American West – both past and present – hold a special appeal for me. When I researched the titles of the two Williams’ books I hadn’t read, I found that The New York Times Book Review stated:

Harsh and relentless yet muted in tone, Butcher’s Crossing paved the way for Cormac McCarthy. It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western.

Well, there was no way I could pass that up. I ordered the book and put aside the next book on my TBR stack as soon as it arrived.

Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a young man, William Andrews, a third year student at Harvard University in 1873. Andrews decides to leave Harvard and seek “an original relation to nature” by going west after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like many young men, he is seeking self-discovery, a purer life, the ability to be one with nature which he believes can only be achieved in the American Frontier. He drops everything, grabs his life savings, and takes a coach from his New England home to Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a  town which “could be taken in almost at a glance”: six buildings built along a narrow dirt road and followed by a scattering of tents.

In Butcher’s Crossing Andrews meets up with a man known only as “Miller,” and arranges to finance a buffalo hunt. Buffalo robes are in fashion, and large sums of money can be made on buffalo hides. Andrews, Miller, Charley Hoge, a cook and wagoneer, and Fred Schneider, a skinner, take off across the prairie, headed to a mountain valley where Miller claims to have found a “secret” herd of buffalo.

What follows is the story of this hunt. Williams spares no details about the brutality of the hunt, the hardships faced by the hunters, and the bleak prospects awaiting the men when they return. Because Williams is such a precise and honest writer, this is often difficult to read. An small example occurs on the twenty-fifth day of the hunt when hundreds, maybe thousands, of buffalo have been slaughtered, skinned, and the remains left to rot in the sun:

Soon the wagon was so thickly surrounded by corpses that Charley Hoge was unable to point it in a straight direction; he had to walk beside the lead team [of oxen], guiding it among the bodies. Even so, the huge wooden wheels now and then passed over an outthrust leg of a buffalo, causing the wagon to  sway. The increasing heat of the day intensified the always present stench of rotting flesh; the oxen shied away from it, lowing discontentedly and tossing their heads so wildly that Charley Hoge had to stand many feet away from them.

This was not an easy book to read. The carnage of the buffalo hunt, the moral degradation of the men involved, the impact upon William Andrews, once so idealistic and naive, make us face the realities of the often romanticized settlement of the American West. In writing the Introduction to Butcher’s Crossing, Michelle Latiolais draws comparisons between the buffalo hunt and the US involvement in Viet Nam and Iraq. She concludes that:

John Williams’s unflinching attention in Butcher’s Crossing to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature – man’s nature – to be a horrifying prospect.

Grade: A


Responses

  1. Thanks. I’m halfway through Stoner and have also found Butcher’s Crossing on Oyster. A very engaging writer!

    • I need to read our June book club book, but I plan to read Augustus in the near future. Too bad Williams only published three books.


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