Review of Stoner by John Williams

Good storytelling. A memorable picture of American life.

Steinbeckian. Stoner the famer becomes Stoner the stubborn professor. We witness his heartbreaking home life and his harrowing professional life–two spheres most middle class Americans dwell in like split personalities.

It has been called a perfect novel. I would like to point out a few of its weaknesses, from my standpoint. The writing is too passive. Too many filler words, especially in the first half, too much hedging, too many adverbs, gesticulations, and passive verbs. It’s all telling, not showing, summary, not scene. Most early literary classics indulge in the same vices. I think Nathanael West, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could write better sentences, but despite all of the polite Henry Jamesian prose inflation, it has solid character, thought provoking themes and moving emotional highs. It’s not dense, but it is deep. It stands as a worthy classic. In short it could have been more tightly written. For being published in 1965 it reads a bit like Dreiser or Steinbeck. Today we get un-tight books by Cormac McCarthy and Delillo, but they aren’t fluffy, they’re maximalist. Still, the minimalist plot and moral arguments here are old fashioned and the author succeeds in what he set out to accomplish.

It is a descent into the human psyche. A closed-perspective study of values. The thesis defense scene and its fallout are masterfully done. The whole book is unforgettable.

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