The Man who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, ‘Stoner’ and the Writing Life 
by Charles Shields.
Texas, 305 pp., £23.99, October 2018, 978 1 4773 1736 5
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Nothing but the Night 
by John Williams.
NYRB, 144 pp., $14.95, February 2019, 978 1 68137 307 2
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Inthe summer of 1963, between the appearance of Thomas Pynchon’s first book and the Beatles’ second long-player, John Williams, a professor at the University of Denver, sent his agent in New York a draft of his latest novel, which detailed the unhappy marriage, undistinguished career and early death from cancer of an imagined professor at the University of Missouri a generation earlier. The response to ‘A Matter of Light’, as the draft was called, was not encouraging. ‘I may be totally wrong,’ Williams’s agent, Marie Rodell, wrote, ‘but I don’t see this as a novel with high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing.’ Williams’s editor at Macmillan, who had published his previous novel, Butcher’s Crossing, in 1960, quickly turned the book down, and Rodell put the draft, now called ‘A Matter of Love’, into general circulation. Everyone praised the writing, she reported the next spring, but there was a feeling that the story had ‘such a pale grey character that it would be most unlikely to earn its keep in hard covers’. Five days later, Williams got a rejection letter from a university press he’d been trying to interest in a collection of his poems. The letter quoted a reader’s report: his imagery was ‘banal’, his philosophical musings ‘scarcely worthy of serious consideration’.

Williams, who was 41 and in charge of a creative writing programme at Denver, didn’t give the impression of being dismayed by these judgments. He had survived worse – ‘Unfortunately,’ an editor had told him of an experimental effort ten years earlier, ‘we think that in the present market this manuscript is just too long and too pretentious’ – and he had a solid local reputation. Being ‘one of the more brilliant artist-scholars in the Rocky Mountain region’, as Williams’s department chair had recently described him, might not have seemed so impressive in New York. But his experience with Butcher’s Crossing, which was marketed as a western against his wishes and then wiped out by a grumpy review from the New York Times’s cowboy-fiction columnist, hadn’t filled him with respect for East Coast publishing types. Above all, he was certain that the new book, which he’d planned with care and written with gathering speed and confidence, had come together well. ‘Oh, I have no illusions that it will be a “bestseller” or anything like that,’ he replied to Rodell’s initial warning,

but if it is handled right … that is, if it is not treated as just another ‘academic novel’ by the publisher as Butcher’s Crossing was treated as ‘western’, it might have a respectable sale. The only thing I’m sure of is that it’s a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one. A great deal more is going on in the novel than appears on the surface, and its technique is a great deal more ‘revolutionary’ than it appears to be.

Five months and many rejections later, he was still optimistic: ‘I believe finally that its quality will, if nothing else, shame someone into wanting to do it. I may be naive; but I cannot help believing that somewhere, someone will feel compelled to publish a good novel.’

In July 1964 someone, in the shape of Cork Smith, an editor at Viking, was sufficiently compelled to offer Williams a contract. The novel was published as Stoner, after its central character, the following April, and was ‘briefly noted’ in the New Yorker. It sold around 1700 copies: those who wanted to read about a doleful scholar with a problematic wife didn’t show up en masse until September, when Viking also published Saul Bellow’s Herzog. In February 1966, however, an appreciation by Irving Howe of Williams’s ‘serious, beautiful and affecting novel’ appeared in the New Republic. ‘Given the quantity of fiction published in this country each year,’ Howe wrote, ‘it seems unavoidable that most novels should be ignored and that among these a few should nonetheless be works of distinction. Stoner, a book that received very little notice upon its appearance several months ago, is, I think, such a work.’ Williams’s boss’s widow later told Charles Shields, who tells the story in The Man who Wrote the Perfect Novel, that the novelist stationed himself in the English department’s outer office, in sight of the faculty mailboxes, the morning after Howe’s review reached subscribers in Colorado. A few of his colleagues congratulated him, but most said nothing. Williams stayed there all day, Shields says, then went into his office and shut the door.

Six years later, the same scene, complete with the door-shutting, which by then hinted more strongly at solitary drinking, played out again. The occasion was the appearance of Williams’s novel Augustus (1972), which didn’t find an audience either but won him a half-share of the National Book Award. An increasingly grand and unsteady Williams was soon relieved of control of the creative writing programme, though he didn’t retire from the university until 1985. He died in 1994 without having finished another novel. But Stoner, in the meantime, had found, in his words, ‘a kind of underground life’. Every so often someone wrote a piece like Howe’s, and among people who pay attention to such things the novel became mildly famous for not being famous. Vintage reissued it in 2003 and NYRB Classics did the same three years later. Then, in 2011, a translation into French by Anna Gavalda, a popular novelist, became a bestseller. Spanish, German and Italian translations also did well, and for five weeks in 2013 Stoner was the bestselling novel in the Netherlands. Vintage’s marketing team went to work and more than 160,000 copies were sold in the UK that year. Stonermania has had less traction in the US, but there was plenty of publicity there too: Morris Dickstein supplied the ‘perfect novel’ tag in the New York Times in 2007.

As a result, the three novels Williams wanted to be remembered for are now securely in print, and they make a strange triptych. In subject matter and notional genre they look like the output of an old-time Hollywood studio: a western adventure story set in the early 1870s, a political drama set in ancient Rome and a sort of cheerless Goodbye, Mr Chips. Butcher’s Crossing has some stagey, semi-allegorical material at either end of its mesmerising central section, and here and there its transitions into the heightened language of the main character’s inner world aren’t completely smooth. Otherwise, each novel’s ‘surface’, as Williams called it, is a modest veneer of plain-style storytelling which on closer inspection turns out to be crafted with fanatical assiduity, the writer’s decisions and manipulations not so much concealed as invisibly inlaid. The plots are stark and fable-like – ‘mythic’ was Williams’s preferred term – and lead their buttoned-up heroes to rapt confrontations with nature and the empty spaces inside the self. But each plays out in a historical reality that’s made immediately persuasive with no apparent effort. It somehow seems natural that Williams should know when and why it’s advisable to eat raw buffalo liver, how many cars there would be in a Missouri college town in 1917, or what rhetorical strategies Julius Caesar might employ in a letter to his niece.

Nothing but the Night (1948), Williams’s slim first novel, now reprinted, isn’t like that. Williams never showed any interest in resurrecting it, and it isn’t hard to see the reason. Originally published by a friend’s small press, it’s an apprentice work about a day in the life of a disturbed young literary man, Arthur Maxley, whose psychological problems seem at first to centre on his father (‘Father, Father, Father, he said to himself. What an ugly word’). In the end, it’s revealed that his bipolar mother, who shot herself, is to blame. When Maxley isn’t sneering at the ‘mechanical jargon’ of the people around him, people who resemble ‘so many dumb puppets’, he spends his time harassing waitresses and housekeepers and humiliating a gay acquaintance, whose ‘particular perversion constantly repelled him’. He meets a girl in a nightclub who takes him back to her place. There he loses his mind and punches her in the face until a neighbour bursts in and says: ‘No, little man. You’re coming outside. With me.’ The neighbour beats him up and he staggers away ‘down the long narrow street towards where the darkness converged and there was no light, where the night pressed in on him, where nothing waited for him, where he was, at last, alone.’

Williams was put out when a prospective publisher told him that Maxley wasn’t very likeable and that this made it ‘difficult to care very deeply about what happens to him’. But perhaps he came to think of his first novel as an example of the way not to do things. His subsequent books trade in clear, concrete images and swiftly establish their narrative lines. They’re careful to dramatise emotions instead of simply stating them, and to shore up lyrical passages with workaday detail. (Stoner tiptoes in and out of its most visionary moment, in which a snowbound campus stands in for a silent universe, by way of problems with the faculty’s heating system.) Nothing but the Night, by contrast, is insistently vague. It opens with a seven-page dream sequence, and it’s filled with descriptions that resemble ambitious stage directions: ‘His face was a twisted mask where incommunicable pity and hate struggled vainly with contempt and unacknowledged love.’ Maxley’s trauma serves as a licence for reveries on urban loneliness and his feeling that modern life is inauthentic and ‘filthy’. Though he’s presented as a victim of arrested development, a lack of ironic distance means he often comes across as a spokesman for male self-pity who hasn’t finished digesting Thomas Wolfe and T.S. Eliot and – judging by the appearance of ‘ceaselessly’ here – F. Scott Fitzgerald:

This was the thing that drew men and women together: not the meeting of minds nor of spirits, not the conjunction of bodies in the dark insanity of copulation – none of these. It was the tenuous need to create a bond, a tie more fragile than the laciest ribbon. It was for this that they strived together, ceaselessly and always really alone; it was for this that they loved and hated, gathered and threw away. For only the little thread which they could never test for the fear of its destruction, for only the delicate thread which they could never secure for fear of breaking it in two.

How alone we are, he thought. How always alone.

It’s easy to imagine the older Williams having to work on his poker face if this had been a contribution to his creative writing seminar. Still, a master of restraint needs something to restrain. There’s a streak of self-pity in Williams’s later books too, and a tendency to dramatise worries about universal futility in close conjunction with worries about women and sex. Shields’s biography doesn’t leave much mystery around this sort of apposition (Williams was ‘traditionally minded’ when it came to gender roles and wasn’t happy when his department came under pressure to hire more women in the 1960s), or about the reason he stopped publishing (alcohol got the better of him). But there’s still some mystery about the way he taught himself to write so well that, nearly sixty years later, Stoner – in which a middle-aged professor, hounded by his cold, spiteful wife and a department chair who’s almost literally a malevolent dwarf, finds a few fleeting moments of happiness in the arms of an attractive PhD student – can still be read as a luminous artefact of mid-century American realism rather than a mawkish, self-vindicating fantasy.

Williams in his prime was the model of a grizzled mid-century American writer-professor. ‘I was in awe of John,’ one of his students told Shields. ‘Deep voice, chain-smoker, very intense. He would give a thoughtful answer about the weather. Rock-like, stone-like face, and then suddenly he would break into a big smile. He was gracious, but he said what he thought.’ Like Richard Yates, a near contemporary and friend who was also famous on the writing-school circuit for not being famous, Williams served in the war and had a few unsuccessful marriages, drank too much, promoted a writerly ideal of Flaubert-like strenuousness, and ended up trundling an oxygen tank around with him. Unlike Yates, who didn’t have a degree and, at Williams’s retirement festivities in 1986, had such a severe alcoholic episode that he woke up in hospital, Williams could hold down an academic job. He’d grown up poor and saw no glamour in being a hungry bohemian. ‘My God,’ he said, ‘since when is working for a living selling out? … You’ve got to eat in order to live; and if it distracts you less from your writing to eat well than to eat badly, then you ought to eat well.’

Williams had a PhD – his thesis was on Fulke Greville – from the University of Missouri, where campus gossip about an interwar feud between Professors R.L. Ramsay and A.H.R. Fairchild, sparked by a dispute over who was better qualified to teach a course on Milton, provided the germ for the trouble between Stoner and his enemy Hollis Lomax. But he wasn’t, in his colleagues’ view, much of a scholar – ‘John didn’t have a scholarly mind,’ one told Shields – and he was always pleased, in turn, to be treated as ‘a true novelist and not an academic’. There was a touch of showbiz about him. Shields’s sources use the word ‘theatrical’ a lot. He was short, wore cravats and cummerbunds, maintained a trimmed rather than a Hemingwayesque beard, and had a trained, richly modulated voice. Stoner, who’s tall and gangling and self-effacing, might have been less of a self-caricature on Williams’s part – outwardly, at least – than Lomax is, the character being short and a snappy dresser with ‘a somewhat theatrical pompadour’ who speaks with ‘a dramatic resonance’ from a cloud of cigarette smoke. Lomax is an embittered 19th-century specialist, and in part, perhaps, a bad dream of what Williams might have become if he had been more of a scholar, or if he hadn’t, as he saw it, purged himself of romanticism.

He was born in 1922 in north-east Texas. His mother’s family, like Stoner’s, were hardscrabble farmers, and not much is known about his father, John Edward Jewell. Family legend had him killed by a robber soon after his son’s birth, but Shields hasn’t turned up a record of any such murder, and the only J.E. Jewell who’s documented in the region was marrying someone else fifty miles away in 1924. A stepfather, George Williams, was quickly found and the family weathered the Great Depression on his earnings as a janitor at the post office, a job that was made secure by New Deal investment in their hometown, Wichita Falls. Greatly impressed by Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton in Selznick’s Tale of Two Cities, on whom he began to model himself, Williams at 15 was the subject of a feature in the local paper: ‘No other student even approaches him in the number of books read.’ When not absorbed in Look Homeward, Angel, or in Riders of the Purple Sage, the young ‘poet-critic’, as the newspaper called him, took an interest in the theatre. He spent a year at what’s now Midwestern State University, where he wrote, directed and performed in a number of plays, some of which were broadcast on the radio. In 1941 he dropped out to take a job as an announcer at a radio station with designs on the Dallas market.

A little over a year later, and five months into his first marriage, Williams joined the US Army Air Corps. There was little feeling of moral drama or patriotic excitement – Stoner, when America enters the First World War, discovers within himself ‘a vast reserve of indifference’ – but he knew it was better to sign up than to wait to be drafted, and the Air Corps, as well as having more dash than the infantry, was looking for men with broadcasting experience. He spent the war in Assam as a radio operator on flights over the Himalayas to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s forces against Japan. Williams learned how to smoke while using an oxygen mask at altitude, and to manage the terror and then the boredom with alcohol. Later, he sometimes said that his plane had been shot down, and that he’d led the survivors along the Burma Road to safety before going back, dodging Japanese patrols, to retrieve the dead men’s dog tags. For a number of reasons, starting with the absence of any evidence in the Air Corps’ extensive records, Shields is sceptical about this. But there’s no question that Williams suffered from nightmares and malarial sweats for the rest of his life. ‘He had his demons,’ his widow would tell the Paris Review, ‘and I just let him have his beer.’

After the war he knocked around Key West for a while and drifted back into working as a radio announcer. Then, as he later explained, ‘I grew up a little bit, and realised this was a crappy way to live your life.’ A second wife appeared on the scene – the first had written to him in India to ask for a divorce – and he finished Nothing but the Night, which he’d started writing in the Air Corps. His efforts to get it published brought him into contact with Alan Swallow, a poet and editor who ran a small press while teaching at the University of Denver. Swallow knew Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks, and was a friend and follower of the Californian poet-critic Yvor Winters. He summoned Williams to Colorado, agreed to publish his novel and arranged for him to resume his studies on the GI Bill. He also found work for him at his press, and in 1947 the two men published Winters’s In Defence of Reason. Williams, who’d thought himself fairly enlightened on the grounds that he’d read Proust and Conrad Aiken, now came to feel that his writing had been hopelessly imprecise.

His second wife didn’t take to faculty life in Denver and soon left him for a free- spirited cousin of Leonard Woolf’s. Williams had already started an affair with Lonnie Smith, a student who helped out at the press, and she became the third Mrs Williams in 1949. In the same year, his half-sister, George Rae, to whom he was close, married Willard ‘Butch’ Marsh, another aspiring writer who’d been in the Air Corps. Butch had put himself through college using his skills as a trombone and trumpet player, and he still liked ‘to blow jazz, man’. During Williams’s slow struggle to make himself over as a university lecturer – the master’s degree at Denver, the PhD at Missouri, the solemn essay in the Arizona Quarterly on Winters’s protégé J.V. Cunningham – Butch was in Guadalajara pounding out stories for commercial magazines while George Rae kept the margaritas flowing. The stories weren’t great, but they appeared in impressive numbers. ‘Screw that arty-farty literary twaddle,’ Butch wrote in one of many advice-packed letters. Williams responded courteously to his brother-in-law’s unfiltered correspondence, though he can’t have been amused when Butch’s Week with No Friday, a drugstore paperback about boozy artists in Mexico, came out a month before Stoner did and outsold it two to one.

Williams’sfirst stab at a second novel, ‘Splendid in Ashes’, which centred on the mysterious personality of an alcoholic veteran of the Spanish Civil War, didn’t find a publisher. One editor described the central character as ‘basically uninteresting and irritating’. Williams’s poetry, which often reads like low-wattage Wallace Stevens (‘What would man be without/his inner legend, private myth?’), was similarly unsuccessful, and after many years spent teaching a poetry course shaped by Winters’s personal canon, Williams lost track of whose thoughts were whose and put together, in essence, an anthology of Winters’s favourite English Renaissance verse, with critical commentary that wasn’t wholly original either. ‘Dear Sirs,’ Winters wrote to the publishers, ‘I regret to inform you that you have been taken.’ He went on to devote an endnote in Forms of Discovery (1967) to crushing his would-be disciple.

Butcher’s Crossing, in which Williams found his voice as a novelist, borrowed from Winters in less detectable ways. Its unornamented sentences took shape while Williams was drilling students in Winters’s preference for the Elizabethan plain stylists, but Winters’s distaste for the American Romantics, especially for Emerson, underlies the novel. After the uncomprehending New York Times review, Williams wrote an essay for the Nation which, under the guise of a general theory of the western, explained his story’s philosophical underpinning:

Removed from a social structure of some stability, imbued to some degree with a New England Calvinist-Emersonian tradition that afforded him an abstract view of the nature of his experience, [the American frontiersman] suddenly found himself in the midst of a few desperate and concrete facts, primary among which was the necessity for survival in a universe whose brutality he had theretofore but dimly suspected. And whether he wished to or not, he was forced to reconsider those ideas he held about the nature of himself and the world in which he lived, ideas that had once, since they sprang from the very social and economic structure they explained, served him quite adequately.

The novel’s hero, Will Andrews, follows this pattern to the letter. He’s a minister’s son from Boston who has recently left Harvard, where he had his head turned by Emerson’s lectures. He goes west in the hope that being in nature will lead him to the source of the benevolent power ‘that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life’. Instead he finds suffering and pointless slaughter, and ends up so preoccupied with finding a new identity for himself, one commensurate with the ‘nothingness’ he has glimpsed in the wilderness, that he’s unable to accept the love of a kindly prostitute, the only woman given significant space in the novel.

In this bookish and, even for a frontier story, remarkably blokey plot, however, Williams finally found the distance that allowed him to turn to account his experience of the war and the American war machine, of Colorado’s frightening emptiness and of his own self-absorption. The central section – an expedition to a mountain valley where the men kill and skin an enormous herd of buffalo, becoming so darkly immersed in their work that they fail to break camp before the snows arrive – leaves arguments about Emerson behind. The natural world of the novel is just there, and Williams shows the way things work and how to do them: how to skin a buffalo, manage thirsty horses, make bullets from a lump of lead. (He researched the book for a year and then – fortuitously, he decided – lost his notes while changing offices. He also started going camping alone in the Rockies, often, Shields notes ominously, without notifying his wife.) He was in touching distance of a genre that he knew inside out but wasn’t overawed by, and this left him unencumbered enough to unsettle its conventions. It’s made clear that, while a lack of market incentives means ‘they ain’t worth shooting anymore’, the party’s seemingly avuncular leader would be just as happy to turn his talent for large-scale killing to Native Americans.

While Marie Rodell was shopping Butcher’s Crossing around in 1958, Williams wrote to her laying out his blueprint for Stoner:

To all outward appearances, [Stoner] is a failure; he is not a popular teacher; he is one of the less distinguished members of his department; his personal life is a shambles; his death by cancer at the end of an undistinguished career is meaningless. But the point of the novel will be that he is a kind of saint; or, stated otherwise, it is a novel about a man who finds no meaning in the world or in himself, but who does find meaning and a kind of victory in the honest and dogged pursuit of his profession.

Again, the novel follows this outline to the letter. What’s amazing is that Williams made it work, though as Bret Easton Ellis observes in his introduction to the Vintage edition of Butcher’s Crossing, ‘you can tell from reading these books that the writer was taking this all very seriously’ – Stoner depends for its effect on the reader’s ability not to laugh in church. There’s something a bit farcical about the relentlessness with which Edith Elaine Bostwick, Stoner’s wife, heaps suffering after suffering on her Job-like husband. It’s easy to picture a counter-novel, Edith, that would put more emphasis on Stoner’s clumsy sexual demands, his remoteness, his nobly worn self-pity and his failure to work out what’s behind her unhappiness.

Williams’s third marriage had broken down by the time he started planning the novel, and in 1960, during a desultory affair with a secretary, he met and fell in love with a student, Nancy Gardner, who eventually became his fourth and last wife. He understood that Stoner, as an existential saint, needed a more tragic and dignified love life, and the young woman who briefly makes him happy, before the implacable Lomax runs her out of town, is carefully positioned as a fellow instructor who hasn’t finished her dissertation. It’s only Edith who affects to think of her as ‘your little co-ed’. Williams understood, too, that Edith’s side of the story ought to get a look-in, but here he was caught between the character’s needs and a plot that requires her to be permanently hostile. His solution – perhaps a late-stage one: he was still adjusting the character while Rodell was sending drafts to publishers – was to hint that she had been sexually abused by her father. The hints include scenes of her crushing china dolls to powder and making creepy sculptures expressive of a troubled sense of self, none of which makes her any less of a grotesque. A need to explain both Lomax’s bitterness and his overidentification with a fraudulent PhD candidate also led Williams to give both of these characters a deformed spine and a limp.

Yet Stoner doesn’t read like a bitch-ex-wife novel in which envious cripples conspire against a blameless hero, and one explanation for that is simply that it’s very well done. You’re left with an impression of complete clarity and simplicity and non- trickery, even when the narrator has been shifting artfully between showing and telling, or offering unobtrusive scraps of general wisdom (‘they … talked of their teaching and study with the awkward facetiousness of the very serious’). There’s a feeling that the writer has almost disappeared through his sheer concentration on the task of lighting up a dull, depressing life without letting the reader notice any departure from sober realism. At the same time, you’re aware of Stoner’s life as a kind of fable, a story in which the central character’s fate is settled early on without him noticing, like Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe or a version of It’s a Wonderful Life in which George Bailey lives in Pottersville all along. Characters make predictions – ‘Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher’ – or wordlessly seem to recognise Edith as the bad fairy she is at some level. In the sense that Williams outlined in his essay on westerns, Stoner is a mythic character who finds ‘an order of the self … at the expense of knowing at last the essential chaos of the universe.’

The rest of Williams’s story makes disheartening reading. By the time Augustus brought some success his way, Williams’s hidden bitterness over Stoner’s failure, and his less and less hidden alcoholism, meant that ‘his preoccupation with himself could be overbearing at times’. He railed against the counterculture, tried unsuccessfully to find a more prestigious post, and did not endear himself to newer colleagues such as Peggy McIntosh, who went on to write about the concept of white male privilege. In debates about Vietnam his contributions were on the order of ‘Now your Chinese – as I learned when I was over there in ’44 …’ And one of the strange things about Augustus – which grew out of his interest in the emperor’s daughter Julia, who was charged with sexual profligacy and exiled, as also happens, in effect, to Stoner’s daughter – is the near total absence of any resonance with Washington politics in this novel about control of an empire. It’s more like a novelisation of The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme, without the prosopographical footnotes but with the same eerie sense that the writer knows these people well. The novel’s Augustus is another inward voyager. He likens his labours to a poet’s, and says that a man of destiny remakes the world, ‘not to his own desire, but to a nature that he will discover in the process of remaking’.

Williams didn’t remake the world in prose again. He tinkered with a couple of abortive projects, but mostly he enjoyed Nancy’s company, grew tomatoes and drank. The cigarettes got him before the alcohol did. Shields – who hoovers up the available evidence and shapes it into an episodic narrative without giving much sense of what he makes of his subject – ends with the story of Stoner’s revival. Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics suggests that it’s ‘an American book like an Edward Hopper painting’, which sounds about right as an explanation of its popularity on this side of the Atlantic. ‘The English cult of the mid-century American sentence’, as Thomas Meaney called it last year, is a force to be reckoned with too. I don’t know if Ian McEwan had read Williams when he wrote On Chesil Beach (2007), but one way of thinking about that novel is as a slow-motion reimagining, complete with hints of past sexual abuse, of the excruciating wedding night in Stoner, which ends with Edith retching in a locked hotel bathroom. Disagreeable women puking is also an important motif in the novels of Richard Yates, so perhaps it’s the darkness, as much as the sentences, that we like in rediscovered mid-century American novelists.

Either way, Shields’s book is a handy corrective for anyone who’s nostalgic for the days when American writers and publishers routinely ran up large bar tabs. Butch Marsh believed that his hands were trembling as he refreshed his glass of tequila as the result of too much nicotine. He died of a heart attack at the age of 48 in 1970. George Rae remarried two years later and was arrested after the wedding reception for being drunk and disorderly, to which she responded by setting fire to the mattress in her cell. Cork Smith couldn’t oversee the publication of Augustus because he’d been suspended from Viking with orders to get himself dried out, though he later organised a ‘Boozerama’ after Williams won the National Book Award. Alan Swallow – who lost his job at Denver over an affair with the wife of one of the university’s trustees but hung onto his press, which survives as an imprint of Ohio University Press – kept going on painkillers and alcohol, pinned Nancy Gardner against a wall and groped her in 1966, and died of a heart attack later that year at the age of 51. His wife found him in his basement office with his head resting on his electric typewriter, its motor still whirring. Williams’s friends sometimes told him that if they had his talent they’d look after themselves a little better than he did. He did well to make it to the age of 71.

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Vol. 42 No. 1 · 2 January 2020

Christopher Tayler writes about John Williams (LRB, 19 December 2019). I worked at Viking Penguin in the 1980s, and one of my good friends and mentors was Cork Smith, the perceptive editor who in 1963 took a flyer on Williams’s eventually acknowledged but back then widely rejected masterpiece, Stoner. Cork was a wry, dry and witty man who trafficked in understatement; when he said that a manuscript was ‘pretty good’, the opinion had the same force as another editor calling it ‘an awesome masterpiece’. Cork’s low-key style made him a master at sales conference presentations – a very particular skill, as an editor tries to lodge a positive impression of a book in the minds of grizzled, heard-it-all-before sales reps. But Stoner defeated even Cork. He told me once that it was the single hardest book he ever had to present: a novel in a distinctly minor key about an anonymous academic in a Midwestern state college, trapped in a loveless marriage and obscure scholarly pursuits. Try as he might, Cork failed to raise the tiniest swelling of interest in the book. Philistinism and commercialism had nothing to do with the indifference. Some books just defeat one’s ability to make a case for them.

Tayler mentions that Cork was on leave from Viking when Williams’s next novel, Augustus, came in to Viking, and indeed on a couple of occasions he had to enter rehab for what he called ‘a dry cleaning’ for acute alcoholism. So it is worth noting that in the last decades of his life, before he succumbed to emphysema in 2004 (he smoked unfiltered Camels), Cork was completely sober.

Gerald Howard
New York

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