Stoner // by John Williams

//published 1965//

As I have mentioned here before, I’m currently part of a Litsy traveling book club called LMPBC (Litsy Mark-up Postal Book Club).  It’s divided into groups of four – each member chooses a book to read/annotate, and then once a month everyone in the group mails their book to the next person on the list.  You read that book, marking it up as you go, and then mail it to the next person, until you get your own book back.

All that to say, I probably wouldn’t have read  Stoner on my own, but since it was an LMPBC pick, I stuck it out.  I don’t regret reading it, but it’s definitely a downer of a book, and those of you who visit here regularly will know that I’m more of a happy-book kind of girl.

The title for Stoner is from the last name of the book’s main character – William Stoner, born in 1891 to a poor farmer and his wife in Missouri.  The book follows Stoner’s life from his birth, through his education and career at the University of Missouri, all the way to his death in 1956.  It’s a very linear narrative, for the most part following Stoner’s life year by year, touching on events important and small, gradually building a picture of a regular, everyday man.

Because Stoner isn’t someone who is important, or who accomplishes something great, or who learns a major lesson and changes his life.  He’s just a poor farmer’s son who becomes an English professor.  Williams tells us from the very beginning that

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.  …  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particularly esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This was a masterful book.  Despite the fact that I didn’t really enjoy it, and wasn’t even sure if I liked the main character, I wanted to keep reading.  Nothing huge happens to Stoner, yet I couldn’t stop wondering what was going to happen next.  I found myself filled with rage at small injustices, wanting to shake Stoner for not standing up for himself, and feeling completely heartsick about his marriage.  Despite not having any great events, it was not a neutral book.  Honestly, I was exhausted when I finished it – completely wrung out from all the feelings.

I’m not sure what else to say about it.  There were times that I wanted to shake Stoner for being so passive about what was happening with his life and family.  He marries a rather dreadful woman – one who appears to have some serious mental health problems – and does everything he can to make her happy, yet at the end of his life, blames himself for their miserable marriage.  He has an affair with the great love of his life, yet lets her walk away in order to avoid scandal and complications.  (Not that I agree with him having an affair in the first place, but even in this “rebellion” he’s still incredibly passive about everything.)  At the end of the book, Stoner really made me look at my own life and wonder where I just let things slip by because it’s easier than fighting for what’s best.

Not a happy book.  Not even a book I can exactly recommend.  Yet a deeply thoughtful, beautifully written, intense book that will stick with me for a long, long time.