C. B. James is running a challenge, encouraging people to read historical novels set in the American West. There’s another name for this kind of book, something more compact. I read Butcher’s Crossing (1960) by John Williams.
A young knucklehead, Will Andrews, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1836), drops out of Harvard and heads West, seeking a profound and authentic communion with Nature, or something like that:
But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought. It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the dark rich dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year. (21)
With 250 pages to go, it is already clear that Andrews will find that Wildness and then some. The question is, will this inexperienced idealist escape from it alive, and who or what will he take down with him.
Andrews’ search for true nature sends him into the Colorado Rockies as a member of a four-man buffalo hunting expedition. A long stretch in the center of the novel describes the slaughter of the buffalo. One sliver of that section:
Andrews opened the keg of water and got the tufted end of the cleaning rod wet. When he inserted the rod into the breech of the barrel the hot metal hissed, and the drops of water that got on the outside of the barrel danced for a moment on the blued metal and disappeared. He waited for a few moments, and reinserted the patch. Drops of smoke-blackened water dripped from the end of the barrel. (134)
A keen-eyed reader might observe that this passage sounds very much unlike the first one I provided. Yes, thank goodness! An entire novel written in that first style would be hard to finish. Most of Butcher’s Crossing is as meticulously detailed and carefully imagined, as material, as Little House on the Prairie. Readers impatient with details about how to drive a team of oxen or build a canvas water barrel or skin a buffalo may well find this novel hard to finish. Not me – I was impressed.
To be specific, a sentence like the last one, with the smoke-blackened drops, moves Williams’ writing out of the category of the instructional manual. I may not follow every step, but Williams always includes something that I can focus in on, something he imagines and sees (or smells, or hears) clearly that he can give to me.
C. B. James argues that Butcher’s Crossing “does [not] offer an ironic, modern take on the events it describes.” This puzzled me a bit, but I think he means that Williams is not messing with the conventions of his genre. Butcher’s Crossing is not a hipster Western; its author does not wink at his reader, signaling that he and I are of course too sophisticated to read Westerns – you know, those other Westerns. Williams uses the Western as a useful platform to tell this particular story.
The story itself, though, is profoundly ironic. The novel might actually be a parody, but not a parody of Westerns. I’ll see if I can develop this idea.