There are a couple more books from this summer that I wanted to mention as being particularly good. First of all, John Williams’s novel Stoner was an excellent read. It’s not at all what you might think based on the title, having nothing to do with drugs and instead being about academia and midwestern American life. William Stoner is the novel’s protagonist, a man who grows up on a farm with limited prospects, until his father learns that Stoner can go to the University of Missouri to study agriculture and bring his knowledge back home to help improve the family farm. Stoner heads off to school with the best of intentions but — through a pretty harrowing class experience — decides he wants to study English literature instead. He graduates and goes on to earn a Ph.D., eventually becoming a professor and spending his life in academia. The novel charts the ups and downs of his career and his family life.
That all sounds straightforward, and the novel is written in a simple, realistic style that doesn’t draw attention to itself. But the story is devastating. Stoner marries a woman he shouldn’t and unintentionally makes enemies with a powerful colleague and finds himself struggling and unhappy. And there is not much he can or will do about it. It’s a novel of quiet struggle, capturing a time and a culture when people endured rather than rebelling or running away. An early scene in the novel when he tells his parents that he will not be returning to the farm but instead is going to go to graduate school captures this devastatingly: he hadn’t given his parents a hint of the blow that he was about to give them, and when they receive it they are shocked but mute — they don’t have the words to say what they are thinking and feeling. They have never really talked to each other and don’t know how to begin. So, they just quietly part, heartbroken.
This is an academic novel, but it’s unlike any other I’ve read. It deals with questions of the role of the university and the value of scholarship, but the point is not to skewer academia or to laugh at it, as so many academic novels do. Instead, it paints a picture of a man who is trying his best and who takes what opportunities come his way, but finds there is only so far he can travel, that he can’t leave his past behind, and that life can trap him, in spite of his best efforts. It sounds depressing, and I suppose it is, but the experience of reading the book didn’t feel that way. It has the ring of truth to it, harsh as it may be.