Literary criticism/memoir regarding an overlooked American novel.
In the latest volume in the publisher’s Bookmarked series, Almond (Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, 2018, etc.) delivers an energetic discussion of Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Williams (1922-1994), who won a National Book Award for Augustus (1972). The Bookmarked series encourages authors to personally engage with the works they are championing, and Almond delves into personal failures and accomplishments as well as relationships with family, friends, and students, all through the prism of Stoner. Though some readers may find this approach disruptive, it results in a sensitive and perceptive reading of a novel Almond first read when he was a struggling 28-year-old writer. He has since read it innumerable times, each time learning more about the novel and himself. Stoner, which has been reissued a few times, is a quiet, reflective tale that recounts the life of a rural farm boy who becomes an English professor, husband, and father. Almond offers this “peculiar pint-sized ode” to a novel that has become for him a manual for “living.” A “literary novel” that is also “subversive,” Stoner “casts a piercing light upon the worship of power and wealth that has corroded our national spirit.” Almond loves how it “captures with unbearable fidelity the moments of internal tumult that mark every human life.” At times, he gets “furious” with William Stoner the “perfect martyr,” the “hardcore masochist.” He discusses the novel’s “unrelieved narration,” or “plain style,” as Williams described it, and its portrayal of a wrecked marriage, the nasty world of academic in-fighting, and the challenges of child-rearing. Almond argues that Stoner is both an anti-war novel and, with its detailed portrait of the “collision of poverty and privilege,” a “radical social novel.”
A concise, useful examination of a novel that, at its heart, is a “wise and merciful book” about the love of teaching.