John Wiliams: Stoner

What can I say about Stoner? The book — and the author — appeared from nowhere a while ago, and suddenly became de rigueur. Color me skeptical: there is a reason authors and books are forgotten and never talked about again. Except not in this case.

Imagine the life of farm boy from Missouri who goes to college for agriculture, switches to literature, starts teaching, gets married, has but one child and never goes further from home than St. Louis, has an affair but ends it with seemingly little regret, teaches the same subjects for forty years, has but one one or two not very close friends, a feud with a fellow teacher, retirement, and soon after death from cancer. All told in a plain, matter-of-fact way and crystal clear prose. Exciting, right?

But it is. It is book you will probably never forget, a book that gets under your skin. And, ultimately, a book that cuts to the very answer to that big question: what is the meaning of life?

Stoner does not have an answer per se. He has no grand visions and no beliefs, it seems. He takes pleasure from small and mundane things, and when these things — inevitably — are taken away from him, he stoically shrugs and carries on.

And, of course, therein lies the answer, both to that largish question about the meaning of it all, and also the answer to the question about why this forgotten book is, obviously, one of the best novels of the last century, and one that will stay with us as such for quite a while.

But a TV series it will probably not become, one hopes.