First published in 1992, James Galvin’s The Meadow depicts the century-long history of a hay meadow in the mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border, told through the eyes of Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, of their unsentimental struggle to survive on an independent family ranch, along the way debunking much of the traditional romantic myth of the American West as we know it. Galvin knows the meadow like Thoreau knew Walden and the surrounding areas, and writes of it as intimately, giving it a sense of place only a native could. Imagine Walden as a western novel and you have a sense of what the book is like. Similar to Stoner (discussed here in an earlier entry), The Meadow is a quiet classic that you somehow discover because it has been kept alive mostly through word of mouth. It had received, along with Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, the award for Best Novel about the West that year, but unlike McCarthy’s novel which was a huge bestseller, The Meadow suffered a very different publishing fate, as few bookstores carried it. It came out in paperback the following year and subsequently obtained a devoted following.
Immediately upon finishing it, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to run out and tell others with a like mind about it. Even better (though rare) if you find someone who smiles and excitedly replies, yes I’ve read it, and you launch into an in-depth discussion of it. Although different in scope and milieu, it reminded me a lot of Vern Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, published the previous year, also an elegy for a lost time and place, although The Meadow reads more like a novel written by a poet (which Galvin) is, with its close attention to detail, meticulous musical prose, plotted structure (though it also contains just the facts, ma’am), and unrequited denouement. By the end of the book, we know these people, unfamiliar as they may seem, intimately; we become linked to them because we cannot help but identify with and admire their heroic age-old struggle for survival; stoic, on the edge of a subsistence living, yet loving the place for what it gives them materially and spiritually. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, read it for the writing itself; in its way, for what it is, The Meadow is a perfect book..
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.