This is not so much about a writer as a book, as not a lot has been written about John Williams, although I imagine that soon will change. In one of those literary miracles that occur every decade or so his novel Stoner, originally published in 1965 and republished in 2006 as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, (which republishes relatively unknown or largely forgotten books much like The Dalkey Archive Press) became an overnight sensation. It was another case of a prophet not being recognized in his own country; when originally published the book sold 2,000 copies and received little notice in the literary press, but its reputation was kept alive by word of mouth and the occasional review appearing over the years. When it was republished in 2006 it received glowing reviews and sold modestly at first, when Anna Gavalda, a best-selling French novelist read it and was so impressed she asked her publisher to buy the rights so she could translate it herself into French. The book took off in Europe because of her reputation and then acquired a huge audience on its own merits.
I suppose I had read about it somewhere or maybe heard the piece about it on NPR and immediately went out and bought a copy and was instantly hooked. That summer I read it on my lunch breaks in Forest Lawn Cemetery, a beautifully designed Olmsted project, sitting on a bench on a slight rise under a shade tree to shield myself from the relentless summer sun, and found that I enjoyed it so much it became one of those rare books you don’t ever want to end. I read much more slowly than normal, reflecting on what I had read each day, savoring each page, finally finishing it on the last day of summer on a golden day suffused in sunlight. Even then I was reluctant to go back to work but lingered a while longer in the shade, knowing this was a once in a lifetime experience. To describe what its about, the simple story of a man’s life, doesn’t do it justice, or explain why I felt immediately upon finishing it that it was the perfect novel, that I might even be able to write something like it myself because it seemed perfectly effortless, that anyone could do it, though I knew that was far from the case, but something to forever strive for. John Williams is an example of a writer’s writer par excellence, having published four novels and two books of poetry; alongside Stoner I highly recommend Augustus (which shared the 1972 National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing, published in 1960. He is why writers write, and it’s so fitting his work has been kept alive in the old way, via the oral tradition.