Dan Sandman

24: Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 12/06/2015 at 12:00 pm

Butcher's Crossing by John WilliamsAll the ingredients are here for a western: a lone hero who walks into town looking for an adventure; a fellowship is formed; and a vast American landscape is explored. But this is not a western in the John Wayne or the Clint Eastwood sense; there are no gunfights with Indians or standoffs with the deputy sheriff. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams is the sort of American novel one would expect from the author of Stoner.

In search of buffalo, four men venture out to the rocky mountains of Colorado from a small town called Butcher’s Crossing. Will Andrews puts up the money, Miller hunts and kills, Charlie Hodge cooks and drives oxen, and Fred Schneider skins what Miller kills using specialist knives. Working against the dry terrain and the extreme weather conditions, the men hunt together, seeking to profit from the sale of buffalo hides to a businessman called Mc Donald, who promises to pay the men when they return. But as the expedition progresses, and the four men face many trials, will the team get back safely to Butcher’s Crossing and get paid? And will Andrews get back to the explain his feelings to the rejected Francine?

What I like about Butcher’s Crossing, is that it never plays up to the Hollywood version of the wild west. What is depicted feels far more true to history, and the number of characters properly introduced is a total of six: Andrews, Mc Donald, Miller, Hodge, Francine and Schneider. John Williams is a descriptive writer of great power; one who is able to strongly impress the feel of a place. Williams does this by paying close attention to detail, in particular when he is describing the effect light has on places and people. One moment that stands out in my mind is when a strong white light dazzles Andrews and forces him back to camp. With reference to previous American novels, like Hemingway before him, Williams pits man against the elements and beasts of the natural world. The underlying result of such a conflict often comes across as overly macho, but the gender inequalities presented in the classic American western or hunting story are an important part of the past.

And, like this book, or like any adventure, the past can be both serious and beautiful.

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