Stoner by John Williams

When someone whose opinions you truly respect recommends that you read a novel that brazenly states on its front cover that it’s the best novel that you’ve never read, then you can hardly be blamed for having high expectations. In Stoner, my expectations weren’t just matched, they were smashed out of the proverbial park.

Stoner is the sort of novel you want to be introducing all of your friends to. Ostensibly the life story of William Stoner, young farmhand turned academic thanks to the power and the protagonist’s love of literature, it reveals itself to be considerably more than a simple tale of boy made good thanks to the power of education.

Stoner is a simple yet profound take on the nature of love: love of work, love between people, love of humanity. It is a book where simple events and occurrences take on a resonance and permanence, thanks to the brilliance and clarity of the writing. Williams’ protagonist is a man of simple principle yet, like us all, he is not without fault. As readers, we all to easily see the challenges in his marriage that he appears either blind, indifferent or oblivious of. Similarly, we are frustrated at his initial inability to see how he can achieve the personal love he so desires in his relationship with another key character in the book.

Stoner is transformed and given purpose by his love of literature which he takes up after eschewing a course in agriculture that his parents have sacrificed enormously to give him a chance at a better life. His rejection of agriculture for literature is indeed a selfish one but it is one borne out of desire to understand his own purpose on earth and to pursue, with vigour and resilience, the academic life. This idea of understanding oneself, through challenge, adversity and the pursuit of love runs throughout the novel as we follow Stoner’s academic life, his personal growth, his family and his intellectual ambitions.

As a depiction of campus life, Stoner is scarcely bettered. For anyone who has experienced the intensity of tertiary education, there will be deep recognition of the environment which can be as vigorous and enabling as it is suffocating and small minded (a key part of the narrative brings this paradox to brilliant, painstakingly accurate life).

Stoner is not, however, a rediscovered Dead Poets Society. Rather its themes are more universal and, by extension, more triumphant. Through Stoner, Williams has created if not an Everyman character but a character who, like us all, strives to understand the why as much as the what; who fails as readily as he succeeds but who never loses the optimism that the pursuit of a better life through love and being loved can bring. 

Stoner is wise, true, beautifully written. At times the novel is breathtakingly sad but it is not sadness that you’re left with. On the contrary, it is the joy of having met and read the life of one of the most complex, beguiling and human portraits in American literature. 

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