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Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing (1960)

by John Williams

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Williams was happy with three of his novels, and wrote four overall. There's more good writing, intellectual effort, emotional depth and social commentary in any one of the three approved novels than in all 18897874006836789308746739489764 items of Rothdike's oeuvre. And yet, this is relegated to cultish status, while even your great-great-grandma Ethel has probably read at least one of the Rabbit series.

My general grumpiness aside, this is amazing. The best comparison is Flaubert, another author who wrote, meticulously, a small number of novels that have almost nothing in common with each other except their excellence. Stoner is Williams' 'Bovary,' a novel that relies on the reader being able to empathize with either the main character or the narrator. 'Butcher's' is his 'Sentimental Education': not as well crafted (though still better crafted than anything else you'll come across), but probably appealing to a broader range of people. Also, a bit slow.

He takes on most of the themes you'd expect in a Western: nature, violence, solitude, heroism, and death. But there's more here than in a standard revisionist "it wasn't all cowboys and love stories" western. Rather than worrying away at the Western tradition, Williams uses those themes to worry away at America's soul and it's poorly aligned goals of getting back to our 'natural, authentic selves,' and commercial gain. Getting back to nature (which is a violent, deadly place) will, in the end, drive you mad. And commercial gain will turn you to nihilism. Given those options, it's impressive that Williams manages to give us an unsilly and ambivalent conclusion. A lesser author would have been forced into Sartre territory.

Finally, despite superficial similarities (long horse-riding scenes; long technical descriptions of lost arts), B'sC has nothing important in common with Blood Meridian. BM is a sophisticated, deeply moral satire, that is ultimately concerned with questions of good and evil; it uses its 19th century setting to criticize 20th century life. B'sC has much more in common with Moby Dick, as other reviewers have pointed out: it's not engaged with the westward course of empire, but with the terrifying real-world consequences of the American philosophical tradition, from Emerson to the present.

Definitely one to give to friends who are either flag-wavers or want to 'get back to nature.' ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
Somewhere in my travels around LT I read a posting that said in effect, when it came to westerns, Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams was one of the best . Wow, thought I, that’s a western that I have never heard about and immediately went about tracking it down. Now I owe a big thank you to that unidentified poster for pointing me in the direction of this book.

This isn’t a big action packed story, instead it tells a simple tale of a young man who comes to the west sometime in the late 1870’s looking for that unknown something that young men search for. He hooks up with an older man, a buffalo hunter who tells him of a valley that he once stumbled upon. A valley nestled up against the Rocky Mountains with lush grass, water, plenty of game and, uncounted buffalo. Together with two other men they set out to find this valley and hunt the buffalo who take refuge there.

With characters that are complex and memorable, the author weaves his story together with sparse yet picturesque writing. Partly a coming of age story, partly a ecological essay, Butcher’s Crossing captures the essence of a land on the brink of change, the hunter’s time almost over, the buffalo having been brought to the edge of extinction. It will soon be the time of the railroads, as they move in and open up the land for ranching and farming. I don’t understand why this work isn’t better known with it timeless writing and it’s very current themes. I know that I found it to be a wonderful read and for me, helps to define what a revisionist western is meant to be. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | May 26, 2013 |
A memorable book. One could reasonably make a comparison to Cormac McCarthy, not because of the writing style (they are opposites, and each good in their own way) but because of the vast and awe-inspiring setting. Man vs. Nature, in capital letters. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
I didn't enjoy this as much as Williams' other novels, Stoner and Augustus, which were both two of my absolute favorite books I read this year, but it was nonetheless a very good read despite some slow going for me through the first half. It was really hard for me to get engaged in this book at first for some reason, but that was probably more my fault than the book's; I just don't think I was in the mood for a western when I started it, but I was definitely craving more Williams, so that kept me going. Once the characters found themselves in true jeopardy, snowbound in the mountains, that was where the rubber hit the road for me, and from that point on the rest was gripping. Even through the slow parts, though, Williams' fine prose sustains you. For those looking for a revisionist western/back-to-nature/survival novel that is also a well written piece of literature, you can't go wrong here. I could see it making a fine film adaptation, which it is slated to be in 2013. I look forward to that, if only for the reason that it will garner some more attention for this under-recognized novelist. ( )
  RodV | Feb 18, 2012 |
Butcher's Crossing is the story of Will Andrews. With his head full of Emersonian ideas about man's "original relation to nature," he leaves Harvard before completing his degree and heads west where he hopes to find some sort of work with a distant family friend, Mr. McDonald, in the town of Butcher's Crossing, Kansas. In the 1870's, when the novel is set, Butcher's Crossing is a town built on the buffalo hide boom. Will rejects Mr. McDonald's offer to join him in a land speculation scheme and soon falls under the wing of experienced buffalo hunter Mr. Miller, who is looking for someone to fund an expedition to find one of the last full size buffalo herds in the Rockies. Andrews agrees to provide the needed funds and becomes one of four expedition members.

By the 1870's what was wild about the American West was just about gone. There is no mention of Native Americans in Butcher's Crossing because there are few left on the plains by this point. The railroad is on its way west bringing civilization with it. The smart money says leave trapping and hunting behind, buy land as close to the railroad as possible if you want to get rich. The buffalo are in their final days as well. The hunters have been travelling farther and farther afield only to return with fewer and fewer low quality hides. Miller hopes to find one last herd as big as those he found when he first came to the plains when the herds covered the horizon.

Buffalo hides awaiting shipment, Dodge City, Kansas.
I could argue that all great westerns are set at just this moment in time, when the wild is about to give way to the civilized. The last great cattle drive, the last stand of the native tribes, the end of the gunslinger era. Shane is about a cattle rancher's attempts to keep farmers out of his valley. True Grit is about a frontiersman's final days of usefulness. As soon as Americans started moving west, the west was finished. If the Jacksonian ideal of one man standing on his own against the wild and all those around him ever existed, it only existed as a doomed figure, trying to keep the end at bay as long as possible. His days were always numbered. His greatest misfortune was that he would live to see the end.

Butcher's Crossing exists firmly within this tradition of the wild west's final days. It's drowning in it. Miller looking for one last great hunt. McDonald trying to buy up all the land he can for all the profit he can make when the railroad arrives. The impending arrival of the railroad itself. Will Andrew's desire to experience the wilderness before it's gone altogether. Experience it he does. In the book's centerpiece scene, the buffalo hunt, at the exact heart of the novel.

After a while Andrews began to perceive a rhythm in Miller's slaughter. First, with a deliberate slow movement that was a tightening of the arm muscles, a steadying of his head, and a slow squeeze of his hand, Miller would fire his rifle; then quickly he would eject the still-smoking cartridge and reload; he would study the animal he had shot, and if he saw that it was cleanly hit, his eyes would search among the circling herd for a buffalo that seemed particularly restless; after a few seconds, the wounded animal would stagger and crash to the ground; and then he would shoot again. The whole business seemed to Andrews like a dance, a thunderous minuet created by the wildness that surrounded it.

One man, Miller, kills almost every member of the last great buffalo herd, leaving the hidden Rocky Mountain valley where he found it dotted with skinned corpses, like a hellish landscape by Hieronymus Bosch. Then, like Ernest Hemingway's Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Miller must get his 'catch' back to town where he can sell it.

Butcher's Crossing is a classic western. It does not break any molds, nor does it offer an ironic, modern take on the events it describes. There's even the familiar young man at the side of an older mentor/idol as there is in just about every John Wayne western one can name. While Butcher's Crossing works completely within the norms of the western genre, it works. That the post hunt journey back to Butcher's Crossing and the novel's final scenes play out exactly as readers familiar with Old Man and the Sea would expect does not detract from their emotional impact. In the end, the reader feels the personal loss of the hunter's broken dreams and the larger loss of a wilderness laid waste for a quick profit and a passing fad. ( )
  CBJames | Jul 17, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Williamsprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Krol, EdzardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Latiolais, MichelleIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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De postkoets van Ellsworth naar Butcher's Crossing was een oude manschappenwagen, zo aangepast dat hij behalve passagiers ook vracht kon vervoeren.
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In the 1870s, Will Andrews, fired up by Emerson to seek "an original relation to nature," drops out of Harvard and heads west. He washes up in Butcher's Crossing, a small Kansas town full of restless men looking for ways to make money and ways to waste it. One of these men regales Will with tales of the immense buffalo herds hidden away in the Colorado Rockies and convinces him to join an expedition to track them down. At the end of a grueling journey, the men reach a place of paradisal richness, where they abandon themselves to an orgy of slaughter. So caught up in killing buffalo that they lose all sense of time, the men are overtaken by winter and snowed in. In the spring, half-insane with cabin fever, cold, and hunger, they stagger back to Butcher's Crossing to find a world as irremediably changed as they have been.… (more)

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Editions: 1590171985, 1590174240

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