My post naming Cubs 3b Kris Bryant the 2014 Prospect of the Year is up for Insiders.
John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing was one of three novels the National Book Award-winner published, just republished earlier this year by the New York Review of Books after the unexpected success of a reissue of his novel Stoner last year. Butcher’s Crossing takes the American western and turns it inside out, reimagining it as Shakespearean tragedy and morality tale rather than hewing to the standard formula of adventure and inevitable conquest.
Will Andrews arrives in the rural trading post town of Butcher’s Crossing direct from Boston, where he’s left Harvard (of course he has … it’s always Harvard, never Dartmouth or Williams or SUNY-Oswego) after three years in search of something different, a less comfortable life than the upper-class upbringing he’s had among salons and scions. The town is little more than a street, a half-dozen buildings, and a regular flow of hunters and trappers, mostly trading in buffalo hides. Andrews hooks up with the grizzled Miller, who knows of an enormous, untapped herd of buffalo that promises a tenfold return on Andrews’ money, with some risk involved due to the distance to get to the herd, which Miller hasn’t actually seen in a decade. The two set off with a driver and a skinner, and they do eventually locate Miller’s quarry, but when Miller becomes so focused on killing off the entire herd, the quartet stay too long and become trapped all winter by a blizzard, forcing them to fend for their lives against hunger, cold, and the madness of isolation.
Williams makes it clear from the start that this is a novel of failure, of the protagonists’ refusal to heed sound advice and clear warnings in search of high and likely unattainable goals. The inability to contemplate that failure, like the invincibility that powers the teenaged mind, dooms Andrews and Miller from the start. Miller is the driver who won’t ask for directions, and leads the team even though Andrews, as the bankroll, should have a say in major decisions. Once he begins the killing, Miller is unable to stop, whether due to bloodlust or greed – or a blend of both where neither can be distinguished – is unclear. Picking the entire herd clean leaves them out in the hinterlands of the Colorado Territory too late in the season, and the blizzard comes quickly, trapping them for six months while taking away much of their stash of hides. They lose some of the remainder on the way back, only to return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that the buffalo-hide bubble has burst, leaving a ghost town behind and the prodigal sons left with nothing to show for their sufferings.
The typical western imagines the old American West as a tableau of vast plains that lead to opportunity, adventure, and the inevitability of manifest destiny – his land and its fruits are ours for the taking, consequences be damned (or fracked). Miller, who has been trying to recruit a money man for this mission for several years, can only see hides as dollars, and appears unconcerned with the consequences for man or beast. Andrews arrives out west with a romantic ideal of the pioneer country in his mind, only to discover after one day on a horse that the physical reality bears no resemblance to the vague pictures he had in his mind. He’s running away from something, but running to something he hardly knows. Charley Hoge, the driver, has already lost one hand to frostbite on a previous hunt gone awry, and now clings equally to his drink and his religion to see him through any crisis. The hired skinner Schneider is the pragmatist, always looking to turn back when the odds seem too long, taking his salary instead of a share of the profits, but even his wiser outlook can’t earn him a better end than those of his mates.
Butcher’s Crossing can be an arduous read because the entire book operates under a shadow. You know none of this is going to end well, not just because the blurb on the back of the book tells you so, but because Williams slathers his brush with a heavy dose of foreshadowing and paints it all over the first part of the book. He takes mercy on the reader by avoiding too much detail of the caravan’s temporary shortage of water and later their miserable time when trapped in the mountains by snow, but this book remains the doom-metal equivalent in the western genre – lugubrious yet menacing, a book designed to trigger your anxiety more than your sense of adventure. There’s a brief passage where the group encounters a small gathering of Native Americans, but rather than giving us the hackneyed kind of interaction – usually outright conflict or a temporary partnership built on mutual distrust – Williams has our heroes pass the group by, with no bullets or arrows fired or words exchanged. The natives appear to have no interest in contact with these white men; perhaps they figured the men were foolish enough to head to their own deaths without any assistance.
Next up: Nairobi Heat, a modern detective novel by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ, the son of the world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novel A Grain of Wheat is among my top 100 novels of all time.