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Butcher's Crossing [excerpt] by John…
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Butcher's Crossing [excerpt] (1960)

by John Williams

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A tiny 4 stars. This novel does not come near Stoner unfortunately. It reminded me of Moby Dick in its very detailed descriptions of the buffalo hunt. But it is difficult to identify with the main character as the author does not give away much about him. His entire background in a wealthy Boston family is only hinted at. ( )
  stef7sa | Jan 5, 2017 |
Butcher's Crossing is a town in the West. It consists of a hotel, a saloon, a dry goods store, stables and a few other houses. The railroad has not yet come to Butcher's Crossing, but the local hide seller, McDonald, strongly believes it will and that the town will flourish then. So far, only few people live in Butcher's Crossing, many of them hunters who provide the hides for McDonald to sell. This is the setting of John Williams' Butcher's Crossing. Enter Will Andrews, the protagonist. He leaves Harvard and sets out to to go west to Butcher's Crossing. Soon after he arrives he meets with McDonald, who is an aquaintance of Will's father. In search of a new way of living, Will Andrews asks McDonald where to go in town and whom to talk to. This is how Andrews learns about Miller, a buffalo hunter. Miller and his companion, Charley Hoge, are soon found in the saloon. After a short talk Andrews agrees to Miller's proposition to go further west to find a buffalo herd in a hidden valley in Colorado and hunt them for their hides. With the help of Andrews' money, Miller is able to buy everything they need for the trip and hire a skinner, Schneider.

In the second part of the novel, the reader follows the group of men on their trip to Colorado. After they almost die of thirst, Miller finally manages to find water and soon afterwards the group arrives in the valley where they find a huge herd of buffalo. Miller is set on killing all the animals which delays the group's return to Butcher's Crossing. They camp in the valley for so long that they are surprised by a blizzard and are snowed in, struggling for survival in the cold. Unable to leave the valley in the snow they have to wait till spring which delays their return to Butcher's Crossing for over six months. The second part ends with Schneider dying while crossing a river and the group losing all their hides, that is everything they had worked for for so long. Back in Butcher's Crossing it becomes obvious that the railroad has not come. Andrews, Miller and Charley Hoge find the town almost completely deserted and run down, which leaves Andrews to reflect on his life and what has and will become of him.

The novel works with a rather small set of characters and it is exactly the interplay of those characters that I liked. Williams did an excellent job of describing the landscape and capturing the characters in their surroundings. This is especially true for the character of Will Andrews, a young man who sets out to discover a new way of living. Through an omniscient third-person narrator we learn what Andrews thinks about the persons that surround him and how he feels on the trip to Colorado. To my mind the following quotation (p. 176) shows Williams' skill quite well. It describes how Andrews feels about hunting, skinning and cutting up buffalo. In the end, it is also a good comparison to the way Andrews feels about his new way of living.

"It came to him that he turned away from the buffalo not because of a womanish nausea at blood and stench and spilling gut; it came to him that he had sickened and turned away because of his shock at seeing the buffalo, a few moments before proud and noble and full of the dignity of life, now stark and helpless, a length of inert meat, divested of itself, or his notion of its self, swinging grotesquely, mockingly, before him. It was not itself; or it was not that self that he had imagined it to be. That self was murdered; and in that murder he had felt the destruction of something within him, and he had not been able to face it. So he had turned away."

Butcher's Crossing is a perfect novel, superbly written and highly readable. 5 stars. ( )
  OscarWilde87 | Oct 23, 2016 |
(This is a review of the Blackstone audio version read by Anthony Heald.) The audio performance is quite good. The narrative is engrossing and I found that I listened to this compulsively instead of doing the practical things I was supposed to be doing.
Peculiarly for a book about man (not woman) coping with "nature", there is a remarkable lack of natural detail -- no birds to speak of, no insects to speak of (with one notable exception), no dogs, no squirrels, not a snake to be seen; no bushes, no flowers, no might sky, not even many trees, except for "pines" and a few references to aspen. There is a great deal of buffalo blood and fire.
Nevertheless, this is a kind of nihilistic tour de force. ( )
  davidcla | Jul 21, 2016 |
In a way, it's surprising that I even picked up Butcher's Crossing, let alone genuinely liked it. I hated Stoner, John Williams' (bafflingly) well-received 1965 novel, and though I acknowledged at the time that Butcher's Crossing was more likely to be my cup of tea, I wasn't filled with confidence. I was on my guard throughout, and was particularly wary when it became apparent it was exploring many of the same themes as the execrable Stoner. However, I found that everything Stoner did wrong, the earlier Butcher's Crossing did right, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. (Note: if you did like Stoner, you will probably still like Butcher's Crossing as it is thematically and stylistically similar. I know I'm in the minority, but Stoner was just awful.)

First of all, the characters. In Stoner, the characters were all unlikeable and poorly-drawn: cartoonish, contemptible little creatures. In Butcher's Crossing they are real: flawed, no doubt, but a tangible and believable presence on the page. Williams uses fairly conventional character molds: the hard-living hunters, the idealistic, thoughtful young protagonist, the hooker with a heart of gold. But they never seem cliché and they allow the reader to be spared the confusing rollercoaster from Stoner, when every page seemed to announce its arrival with another laughably illogical decision from one of the main characters. Consequently, the reader can, to some extent, set the characters aside and engage with Williams' central themes.

The themes are similar to Stoner, but are presented much more coherently and sympathetically. Whereas Stoner seemed to revel in the fact that life was, and I quote, expended in cheerless labour" followed by thankless death, Butcher's Crossing's similar theme of futility in the actions of man is tempered with a thin thread of hope that is hard to summarise in words. By the end of the book, the reader gets a sense that Will Andrews, Butcher's' protagonist, has been irredeemably changed by the events he has experienced, even if we don't know quite how exactly. Whilst to a prospective reader this may seem like a cop-out, in reality it is rather profound: life lessons aren't always clear-cut and as much as we try to reason them out we might not succeed. We're shaped by the events in our lives in ways we don't always anticipate or even recognise; I'm sure everyone reading this will have tried to take stock of their lives at some point and failed to grasp any workable conclusions.

Butcher's Crossing is also more than a cut above Stoner as it has a ready-made genre to work with and explore. I love westerns, both the fast-paced, gunslinging outlaw type and the more stoic, slow-paced type. This novel is firmly in the latter category, and has a number of profound things to say about the West as a central piece of American national myth-making as well as a vehicle in which to speculate on wider themes about the nature of man. The romanticism of nature that Andrews and his party experience is incredibly evocative, particularly the untouched-by-man valley in the mountains and the massive herds of buffalo. Such sights are now long gone in modern America (particularly the herds of buffalo, which at their peak must have been a majestic sight in terms of their movement and in sheer scale), but Williams does an excellent job of conjuring them in the reader's mind. These parts of the prose are magical.

But Williams is no misty-eyed romantic. He juxtaposes this romanticism of nature with the cold, hard reality. He chillingly describes the massacre of the buffalo by the party of hunters, impressing on the reader that these are living, breathing animals and not just targets at the end of a gun barrel. He recounts in gruesome, unsentimental detail the stripping of their corpses for their hides and for meat, contrasting the grotesqueness of their defiled corpses with the dignity and majesty which these creatures had possessed in life just moments before. There is a sense of Andrews and the other hunters, particularly Miller, both embracing and rejecting nature. Killing is, of course, essential in the circle of life but the hunters go too far, exterminating systematically all of the buffalo in the valley and mechanically stripping their corpses - and all for money. The idea of man taming nature (the central precept of the American national myth: that of 'winning' the West) is turned on its head. The men cause their damage, and there is an underlying acceptance that things are fundamentally and irredeemably changed by human interference (readers will no doubt be aware of the eventual extinction of the buffalo herds and the relentless progress of the railroad). But nature endures and always wins out in the end: witness the snowstorm which exhausts the hunting party; witness the natural renewal of the valley in the months after the slaughter of the buffalo; witness the river which proves so indomitable and indiscriminate as the party makes its way back to town.

There is a lot more life in the western genre than is often credited; westerns have the potential to tell us a lot, and Butcher's Crossing says more than most. It is also incredibly eloquent and profound in doing so. It is refreshing that there is a western book out there which is comfortable with its literary endeavours without going overboard like Cormac McCarthy's later Blood Meridian. For Andrews, the West is "a vague country whose limits and extents were undefined" (pg. 43), but it is instructive that at the end, although Andrews still heads west, there are numerous references to the east: the rising sun, et cetera. I believe this is an important message from John Williams' Butcher's Crossing: yes, the West is central to the American national myth, but the east is integral too. It is the yin to the west's yang. The west is the wilder, more primal side of the American identity: relentless entrepreneurial progress, ruthless opportunism and attempt at dominance over nature. But this must be tempered by the east: from the east comes the ideals and moral values on which America was founded and enabled her to expand westwards. The more civilised east was what the Americans of the frontier endeavoured to bring westwards; without this aim, there would have been no force behind western expansion. When Andrews shuns the east and sets off into the wild terrain of the west as an escape, he is almost consumed by the wildness. I have heard Butcher's Crossing described as 'the Western Heart of Darkness', and it is certainly an appropriate comparison. It is this complete picture - that the west should be considered alongside the east in the American national myth - that Williams endeavours to present, and he succeeds in doing so. His success ensures that Butcher's Crossing can without any doubt be declared an exceptional novel." ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
I loved 'Stoner', John Williams' recently rediscovered classic novel, and I'm generally a fan of Western novels, so this has been on my 'to read' list for some time. For most of the book, it is like a survival guide. As we follow the four men on their epic journey across the Colorado plains in the 1870s, we learn how to survive in hot arid conditions with little or no water; and then, how to survive a winter snowed up in a mountain pass (it helps to have piles of buffalo hides). It's a novel consisting mostly of dramatic, poetic descriptions of landscape and weather with only occasional moments of drama. You will also learn everything you need to know about how to shoot large numbers of buffalo while still keeping the herd together so you can shoot more, and how to skin and butcher them (eating the raw liver is particularly recommended for its magical properties - if you can stomach it). There is no doubting the authenticity of this novel.
The characters would easily fit in to a John Ford western - the whore with a heart of gold, the grizzled, bible-bashing, whiskey-soaked wagon driver with one hand, the wise old superman-type leader who is more than slightly unhinged, the angry rebellious buffalo skinner who clashes with the leader. However, for me, the problem was the main character, Will Andrews. He's very much the same kind of almost anonymous dreamer with no clear vision of what he wants from life as Stoner. But whereas that eponymous character, against all the odds, worked brilliantly, the same type of character doesn't cut it in a Western. One example of why I found him annoying - when they start shooting and skinning buffalo, he finds it repulsive, destructive and wasteful and empathises with them - but he quickly gets over it and gets on with the job!
Despite these reservations, it's by no means a bad read. It's just that, if you want to read a really exciting Wild West novel which mixes myth with authenticity, go with anything by Larry McMurtry - especially 'Lonesome Dove'. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
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Williams, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Krol, EdzardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Krol, EdzardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Latiolais, MichelleIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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»Es giebt Tage …, wo jedes Ding, welches Leben in sich hat, ein Zeichen der Zufriedenheit von sich giebt, und das Vieh, das hingestreckt liegt, große und ruhige Gedanken zu haben scheint. Nach diesem Halcyon kann man mit ziemlicher Gewißheit bei jenem reinen October-Wetter aussehen, welches wir mit dem Namen des indischen Sommers bezeichnen. Der unendlich lange Tag ruht schlafend auf den breiten Hügeln und den warmen weiten Feldern. Alle seine sonnigen Stunden durchlebt zu haben, scheint langes Leben genug. Die einsamen Orte scheinen nicht ganz einsam. Beim Eintritt in den Wald ist der erstaunte Weltling gezwungen, seine großen und kleinen, weisen und thörichten Dinge, auf die er Werth in der Stadt legte, dahinten zu lassen. Der Knappsack der Gewohnheit fällt von seinem Rücken mit dem ersten Schritt, den er in diesen Bereich hinein thut. Hier ist ein Gottesfurcht, die unsere Religion beschämt, und Realität, die unsere Helden in Mißcredit setzt. Hier finden wir, daß die Natur der Umstand ist, der jeden andern Umstand klein für uns macht, und daß sie einem Gotte gleich alle Menschen richtet, die zu ihr kommen.«
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ›Nature‹, in: Essays, Second Series. Boston 1845, a.d. Amerikanischen von G. Fabricius, Hannover 1858



»Ja, und die Dichter schicken das kranke Gemüt auf die grünen Auen, wie man lahme Pferde unbeschlagen auf den Rasen schickt, damit ihre Hufe nachwachsen. Die Dichter, die auf ihre Art auch so was wie Kräuterdoktors sind, die meinen ja, die Natur ist die große Heilerin von Herzeleid und Lungenweh. Und wer hat meinen Fuhrmann in der Prärie zu Tode erfroren? Und wer hat den Wilden Peter zum Idioten gemacht?«
Herman Melville, Maskeraden oder Vertrauen gegen Vertrauen, a.d. Amerikanischen von Christa Schuenke, Berlin 1999
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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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Dit is een 'Exclusieve voorpublicatie' van de Nederlandse vertaling; a.u.b. niet combineren met de boekuitg.

This is a pre-published part of the novel's Dutch translation, please do not combine with the complete novel with the same title.
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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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