Thursday, July 2, 2015

Book Review: "Stoner" by John Williams

Since joining the BookTube community as being the producer and a participant on Literary Gladiators, I have done even more to participate in other outlets involving discussions about books. One of which involves my participation in Goodreads and one such group happens to be Around the World in 80 Books. Each month, this particular group nominates three books to read: one from an American state, one from a county in Britain, and another from any country around the world. This past month, the state of choice was Nebraska and the book we voted on was Stoner by John Williams. Reading up on this novel, it almost seemed like its existential views would suit my fancy. The books that are published by New York Review Books usually have that common structure that concentrate on the more literary elements of developing the character. What I got out of this novel was that the development of the characters was one of the greater efforts, for I felt that these characters were realistic for their time and setting. They may have not been the most likable bunch and there were plenty of characters that I felt a bitter hatred toward, but these feelings allowed for an experience that really proved to be quite the delight.

William Stoner lives with his parents on a farm in Missouri (yeah, much of the novel is based in Missouri instead of Nebraska) and is an only child. While at this day and age it would almost be set that Stoner would go right to working on the farm following his graduation from high school, his parents decide that it would be best for him to go to college for agriculture. Despite his intention of doing so, Stoner realizes that he wants to pursue his degree in English Literature instead, and works his way toward becoming an instructor at the college instead of a farmer in the light his parents intended. While it is a challenge, they stand by this decision. Stoner eventually meets his future wife, Edith, at a gathering and is swept up by her beautiful appearance. Unfortunately, they never click emotionally and this leads to a dysfunctional marriage to say the very least. While Stoner remains a scholar throughout the text, Edith never understands where he is coming and deals with some mental issues of her own. They produce a daughter, Grace, to whom Stoner raises for the first six years of life before Edith suddenly realizes she wants to become involved and mold her into what she wants. This develops into a friction that causes Edith to encourage Grace to turn away from her father, for what should be valued in life is conformity to what the status quo deems as being ideal and acceptable. This leads to an inevitable affair at some point later into the text.

Stoner is a man that dances to his own tune and makes decisions that are based on his intuition. They may be questioned, they may go against what is honorable, but at the same time, there are cases where Stoner makes decisions based off of what he feels as being fair. While he colleagues, Gordon Finch and Dave Masters, went to fight for America during World War I, Stoner stayed back and worked toward his degree. The refusal to participate in war had been historically frowned upon, especially up to the time of World War II, but Stoner had a different mindset that involved bearing a different batch of priorities. Into his career, he was given a seminar to teach about Medieval Studies and taught an arrogant, sly student by the name of Charles Walker; not to mention that Charles is also physically handicapped. Charles was known to interrupt during class and an act of academic dishonesty led to his failure of the class. The timing was wrong for Stoner when the English Department ended up being taken over by a man named Hollis Lomax, who had a similar handicap (the term "crippled" is used to described people with Charles and Lomax's particular condition). Stoner caused commotion to prevent Charles from moving forward in the program, to which Lomax felt was an attack on his disability. What Lomax felt was "discriminatory" led to Stoner getting an outlandish schedule and freshman composition classes on his agenda, for Stoner already had tenure. It took a certain revolt that would not occur until years later to which this action was reversed. To me, it was the greatest laugh I had with a book in quite some time!

I see Stoner as being a nice, enjoyable read for the right audience. In this case, the right audience would be a crowd of scholars that are familiar with the ways colleges work. If you are or plan to be an English major, then this is a bonus. The target audience will truly enjoy this work and I feel that a connection will surely be made to Bill Stoner. My criticism would be in the predictability of the plot. There were occasions where what happened is exactly what I believed would happen and in ways that it has happened in the multiple works of this particular setup. However, unlike novels that have used these redundant occasions, this one was able to mold it so that it fit the structure of the story and did little or nothing to hurt it.

What I feel is most important about this novel is the existential idea that Stoner was his own man. Stoner spent his life being stepped on, because he made decisions that went against what others wanted him to decide, for they felt their decisions were more "civil." I think that in some way, shape, or form, there are traits that Stoner possesses that all of us possess and wish to execute a bit better. The fact of the matter is, this particular lifestyle is achievable on the contingency that one is willing to place their reputation on the line and realize that acceptance is not going to come immediately, if ever. Stoner is for the reader that is seeking the enlightenment that they most desire and have the patience to do what it takes to obtain this enlightenment.

Verdict: 8/10