I’ve just finished my second novel by John Williams (1922–1994). This one is a western, Butcher’s Crossing (New York Review of Books). Since I grew up in rural Oklahoma (just an hour and a half from fabled Dodge City), westerns have long been a favorite genre of mine.
Butcher’s Crossing pre-dated Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by a couple of decades. Like McCarthy’s, Williams’s western is unflinchingly and brutally realistic. And like McCarthy, Williams deconstructs myths of West and portrays its “heroes” in an often unflattering light.
The story of Butcher’s Crossing is straightforward and told chronologically, without any flashbacks. It is in large part the coming of age story of Will Andrews, who interrupts his Harvard education to head West. Andrews goes to the makeshift town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, with plenty of money in his pockets. He finds a buffalo hunter and finances an expedition. With three other men, he travels into a remote Colorado valley, where one of the last great buffalo herds is sequestered. In the valley, the men slaughter thousands of buffalo, skin them for their hides, and leave their hulking bodies rotting in the sun.
This is the story of a frontal attack on nature—not only on the buffalo, but on the forces of weather and the vagaries of thirst and hunger. It is the story of men who are “real men” by virtue of their (attempted) subjugation of nature. Much of tension in the story arises from how nature hits back, and the men’s attempt to bring it to its knees often results in their own defeat and comeuppance.
Butcher’s Crossing is replete with vivid and detailed set-scenes: of gunpowder encrusting the shooter’s face as he fires on buffalo after buffalo; of a winter spent desperately under blizzard conditions; of disastrous river-crossings that see a small fortune washed away; of a frontier town bending and dying under its own weight.
It is, in short, a good read, compelling throughout, and worthy of designation as a great novel.