Stoner by John Williams (Vintage, £8.99)

By now, the story of this novel is as well known as the novel itself (see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/13/stoner-john-williams-julian-barnes) and Private Eye has commented about the way the book has been promoted by Waterstones and a bunch of mates. So maybe it is not such a word of mouth sensation as first thought… But it was a non-Waterstones bookseller who gave me a copy months ago, saying that I’d like this, and not to worry about the title being Stoner, it was unrelated to my hippie past.
So, this is a novel about an obscure American academic’s career, first published in the 1960s to small attention, which hung round Vintage for ten years not selling well, went into the limbo that is Print on Demand, then came back to life and has now sold squillions, and is all over the front table at Waterstones (and Five Leaves). But is it any good?
I think it is, but with qualifications. The shy and awkward William Stoner is from a hardcrabble family, who goes to study agriculture, falls in love with literature and spends his whole career at the same college as a student and a teacher of literature. Along the way he finds a wife who makes his life a misery, is made miserable by a secret relationship with one of his students (more on this in a bit) and is bullied at work by a disabled supervisor because he did not give a pass to a disabled student who his supervisor favoured. And the daughter he loved turns to drink. Sounds pretty awful then. On this basis the book sounds like a cross between JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain with a bit of David Mamet’s Oleanna thrown in. But it is a slow build and while Stoner is persecuted it is clear that his relationship with his grad student is loving and only fell apart because of the mores of the era (but still.. the book is being boosted by a lot of late middle aged men connected with academia…). Stoner fights back against the bullying, but subtly, and his boss does not speak to him for twenty years and even then is still trying to get him out of the college.
Hmm. I don’t think I’m convincing anyone in any direction here. Maybe just read it. Let me know what you think.

Ross Bradshaw

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