Κυριακή, 21 Μαΐου 2017

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THE GREATEST AMERICAN NOVEL YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
By Tim Kreider   October 20, 2013


In one of those few gratifying instances of belated artistic justice, John Williams’s “Stoner” has become an unexpected bestseller in Europe after being translated and championed by the French writer Anna Gavalda. Once every decade or so, someone like me tries to do the same service for it in the U.S., writing an essay arguing that “Stoner” is a great, chronically underappreciated American novel. (The latest of these, which also lists several previous such essays, is Morris Dickstein’s for the Times.) And yet it goes on being largely undiscovered in its own country, passed around and praised only among a bookish cognoscenti, and its author, John Williams, consigned to that unenviable category inhabited by such august company as Richard Yates and James Salter: the writer’s writer.


“Stoner” is undeniably a great book, but I can also understand why it isn’t a sentimental favorite in its native land. You could almost describe it as an anti-“Gatsby.” I suspect one reason “Gatsby” is a classic is that, despite his delusions and his bad end, we all secretly think Gatsby’s pretty cool. Americans don’t really see him as an anti-hero or a tragic figure—not any more than they see the current breed of charismatic criminals on cable as villains. Gatsby’s a success story: he makes a ton of money, looks like a million bucks, owns a mansion, throws great parties, and even gets his dream girl, for a little while, at least. “Stoner” ’s protagonist is an unglamorous, hardworking academic who marries badly, is estranged from his child, drudges away in a dead-end career, dies, and is forgotten: a failure. The book is set not in the city of dreams but back in the dusty heartland. It’s ostensibly an academic novel, a genre historically of interest exclusively to academics. Its values seem old-fashioned, prewar (which may be one reason it’s set a generation before it was written), holding up conscientious slogging as life’s greatest virtue and reward. And its prose, compared to Fitzgerald’s ecstatic art-nouveau lyricism, is austere, restrained, and precise; its polish is the less flashy, more enduring glow of burnished hardwood; its construction is invisibly flawless, like the kind of house they don’t know how to build anymore.

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