Patrick Brown's Reviews > Butcher's Crossing

Butcher's Crossing by John  Williams
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's review
Jun 28, 2010

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bookshelves: nyrb
Read from August 26 to September 01, 2010

While nowhere near as good as Williams's transcendent Stoner, Butcher's Crossing is a fairly riveting story of one man's journey into the West. Will Andrews, Harvard dropout, travels to the dusty Kansas town of Butcher's Crossing in search of his true self, which he'd previously only found in the woods around Cambridge. In Butcher's Crossing, he seeks out an acquaintance of his father's, McDonald, who runs a trading company, buying and selling buffalo hides. McDonald can tell that Andrews has come to Butcher's Crossing for something other than a business opportunity -- he wants to go out on a hunt -- so he recommends that he talk to a man named Miller. Miller has an idea for a hunt that will put all other hunts to shame. He wants to make an expedition deep into the Colorado Territory, where he once discovered a hidden valley filled with thousands upon thousands of buffalo. After remarkably little consideration, Andrews agrees to fund the expedition and travel along as a skinner.

The book is full of rich, evocative descriptions of rolling plains, rocky mountains, intense heat and bitter, horrible cold. It's also rife with scenes of slaughter and, yes, butchering. You can practically smell the entrails steaming in the summer sun. With relatively sparse dialog, Williams manages to create several very vivid characters, including the bumbling, haunted Charley Hoge, my favorite in the book.

I rarely read Westerns (Might this be my first? I think it is.), so I can't comment on how this either conforms to or deviates from the conventions of the genre. I found the descriptions of how the men lived, of how they survived without all that I enjoy in my daily life (like plumbing and a bed), to be fascinating. And the story -- a lassic quest, really -- offered plenty of action. Indeed, there's a sequence that's as tense and pact with danger as the movie Wages of Fear.

In the end, I found the philosophy of the book to be somewhat opaque, and it's for this that I'm giving the book three stars. If you are looking for a great Western, you'll definitely find it in Butcher's Crossing. But if you want to read Williams at his best, I recommend Stoner instead.
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Reading Progress

08/26/2010 page 24
9.0% "Why am I reading this? There's no way it will live up to Stoner. Sigh. Still, I'm kind of digging the heavy foreboding early on."
08/26/2010 page 41
16.0% "And some whiskey has been drunk."
09/01/2010 page 252
98.0% "I never appreciated how soft my life is quite as much as I do now, after having read the last 100 pages. Good. Lord."
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Judy (new)

Judy Well, I am a girl, so I did not think Westerns would be my thing, although I admit that Larry McMurtry's are one of my guilty pleasures. But The Big Sky by A B Guthrie just sent me head over heels with wonder and admiration. Hard to find, even in libraries, it preceeded his 1950 Pulitzer Prize winning The Way West, and is much the better book. In case you ever want more about how men live in the wilds without comforts, check it out.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

We rated this the same, but I think we concluded differently. I never felt that the well-constructed smaller parts coalesced into something cohesive, a sum not quite greater than its parts. This is due to the artifice; I was more impressed by the technical details of the novel than by its characters or themes or setting. It feels like Williams set out to make a Western to make a Western, and this might be admirable, but the novel itself left me cold. I appreciate your criticism of it, the negative and the positive.

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