by John Williams
Reviewed by Derek Harmening
Just try to imagine: You’re fetally curled, knees knocking your chin, fingers so cold you can’t move them of your own volition. A thick, rancid stench fills the air and a shroud of darkness envelops you. Why? Because you’re wrapped up in the bloody hide of a freshly killed buffalo. Burrowing lice and fleas crawl over your arms and neck and face, probing, biting, but you can’t move lest your small shelter open, letting in furiously billowing winds and whorls of snow. The temperature is well below zero degrees; you’re trapped beneath five feet of snow, and you’ve been so for three days, with no food, no water, no indication of when nature’s fury will finally desist. It’s the early 1870s. There is no help for miles.
These are the stakes set in Butcher’s Crossing, the 1960 revisionist western by John Williams (Stoner) written in defiance of genre convention. It is a caustic examination of the classic romantic western, the notion of manifest destiny, and the Emersonian presumption of man’s oneness with nature. While populated with a cast of archetypes, Butcher’s Crossing places them in an unforgiving, disinterested world where their prescribed characteristics are of no practical use (as stereotypes, at least).
Heading this cast is Will Andrews, doe-eyed son of a Unitarian minister, who’s just dropped out of Harvard and headed west with an inheritance to “find himself.” His journey leads him to the nascent hunting town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, where he meets Miller, a seasoned hunter who claims to know about a secret valley deep in the Rocky Mountains teeming with thousands of buffalo. After convincing Andrews to put up $600—half of his inheritance—for the venture, Miller assembles a ragged crew, including Charley Hoge, a God-fearing carriage operator and Miller’s right-hand man, and Fred Schneider, a sensible, cautious hide skinner.
The milieu is undoubtedly enticing: Andrews can see it in the grooves set into these men’s faces, their skin darkened by sun and hardened by weather. They are the true demigods, for they have encountered first hand that wild, unnameable phenomenon Andrews so craves:
Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King’s Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained.What Williams spends the majority of the novel exploring, however, is just how erroneous this blind affection toward nature really is.
Once the expedition alights, the stark realities of life begin to creep in. Miller hasn’t been to this alleged buffalo trove in years, and his unclear directions nearly kill his men before they’ve begun. It doesn’t help that his Captain-Ahab-grade obsession blinds him to anything but finding and slaughtering his bounty, even at the cost of his team and supplies. And Will Andrews, so hopeful at the outset, grows appalled and discouraged by his experiences; it’s clear that the profound internal changes he seeks won’t occur until he recognizes the volatility of nature.
And that’s all before the vicious snowstorm rolls in.
Williams gives readers a trail map for these insights. There are plenty of compact, beautifully rendered passages touching on such themes as Imperialism, manifest destiny, perils of the free market, the enduring contempt of Native Americans (and anything else that existed on American soil before Europeans did, really), and—perhaps most importantly—man’s eternal judgment. Line for line, Williams crafts deceivingly simple, straightforward sentences; it’s when we step back that we see the fractal beauty of entire passages, resplendent with character and setting. The following is long, but bear with me—it’s breathtaking:
He came to accept the silence he lived in, and tried to find a meaning in it. One by one he viewed the men who shared that silence with him. He saw Charley Hoge sipping his hot thin mixture of coffee and watered whiskey, warding off the bitter edge of cold that pressed against him at all times, even as he hunched over a blazing fire, and saw his blurred, rheumy eyes fixed upon ruined pages of his Bible, as if desperately to keep those eyes from looking beyond into the white waste of snow that diminished him. He saw Fred Schneider withdraw into himself, away from his fellows, as if his lone sullen presence were the only defense he had against the great cold whiteness all around. Schneider tramped brutally through the snow, throwing as wide and rough a swath as his feet could make; through the thin slits in the narrow buffaloskin that he wore almost constantly tied over his eyes, he looked at the snow, Andrews thought, as if it were something alive, as if it were something against which he was waiting to spring, biding his time…As for Miller—Andrews always paused when he thought of the shape that he wished Miller to take. He saw Miller rough and dark and shaggy against the whiteness of the snow; like a distant fir tree, he was distinct from the landscape, and yet an inevitable part of it.Butcher’s Crossing is rife with these contemplations, snippets like Bev Doolittle paintings, rendering man and nature indistinguishable—in spite of man’s ignorance of what compels him to nature in the first place. These passages are among the many reasons this book is well worth your time. Plus it has one of the most kick-ass, satisfying endings I’ve read in months.
The winter snows are upon us; the cold is bone-deep; the wind is a scythe. Pour yourself two fingers of whiskey, grab a blanket, curl up next to the fireplace, read this book, and be awed.
Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing. He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago. His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.