I recently finished reading – very slowly, because this is a book that deserves much time – Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Like Williams’ Stoner, this book is a masterpiece. At core, it is a critique of the Emersonianism that has dogged the American dream, and a commentary on American history itself – marked by the triumph and tragedy of human conquest on the frontier, the ambiguity of friendship, the pursuit of individual identity and the risk of its loss vis-à-vis the natural world, the temptation of escape from the common, and the seductions of violence in its cold and mindless destruction. All that is told by way of a story of a group of men who leave Butcher’s Crossing, a little town in Kansas, and head off into an isolated valley in the Colorado Rockies in search of buffalo, wealth and self.
I’ll not write any more lest I give away too much of the plot, but here’s a section that could have been penned by Qoheleth himself:
“Young people,” McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.” “Yes, sir,” Andrews said. “Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born, and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you—that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could of had the world, because you’re the only one that knows the secret; only then it’s too late. You’re too old.” “No,” Andrews said. A vague terror crept from the darkness that surrounded them, and tightened his voice. “That’s not the way it is.” “You ain’t learned, then,” McDonald said. “You ain’t learned yet … Look. You spend nearly a year of your life and sweat, because you have faith in the dream of a fool. And what have you got?