Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

A heavy rumble shook the earth; Andrews's horse started backwards, its ears flattened about the sides of its head.  For an instant Andrews searched the upper air about the southern mountains, thinking that he had heard the sound of thunder; but the rumbling persisted beneath him.  Directly in front of him, in the distance, a faint cloud of dust arose, and blew away as soon as it had arisen.  Then suddenly, out of the shadow, onto that part of the valley still flooded in sunlight, the buffalo emerged.  They ran with incredible swiftness, not in a straight line toward him, but in swift swerves and turns, as if they evaded invisible obstacles suddenly thrust before them; and they swerved and turned as if the entire herd of thirty or forty buffalo were one animal with one mind, a single will--no animal straggled or turned in a direction that was counter to the movement of the others.

William Andrews is the son of a Unitarian minister in Boston; he comes west with money in his pocket looking for a genuine experience with nature.  He ends up in Butcher's Crossing, Kansas, a tiny outpost flush with money from the buffalo hide industry.  He finds himself financing a hunting party to the Rocky Mountains, led by a hypermasculine tracker named Miller, and accompanied by a religious drunk, Charley Hoge, and a truculent skinner named Schneider.  Miller's promise of a secret valley laden with thousands of buffalo turns out to be true, and Miller slowly picks off every single one of the animals, already at this time starting to dwindle from its terrific population.  But his thirst for wiping out the herd presses the party to stay longer than is wise, and soon they're snowed in--not for six weeks, as they expected, but at least six months.

Butcher's Crossing is, among other things, a send-up of Emersonian Transcendentalism.  Like Emerson, Andrews comes out of a Boston Brahmin tradition looking for a real connection with the earth that will provide meaning and freedom from the strictures of civilization:

But whatever he spoke he knew would be but another name for the wildness that he sought.  It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous.  What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year.

But what Andrews finds on the buffalo hunt is not freedom or hope but the existential indifference of the natural world, with its tendency to diminish the human ego.  The archetype of the "natural man" is not some enlightened Thoreau, but Miller, who kills buffalo not for money but for some deep and dark primeval need.  And Andrews changes, too, but not for the better; the experience manages to empty him in a way he cannot foresee, underscored by a scene in the midst of the snow-covered valley in which, stricken by snowblindness, he loses his sense of direction and his sense of self.  One of the party goes insane; one doesn't make it back at all.

Williams' novels are so different from each other: a western, a campus novel, a Roman historical novel.  But in each his style is indelible, even though it is a kind of unstyle marked by a preference for the most familiar word and few pyrotechnics.  Williams' descriptions of the Rocky Mountains are little more than an inversion of his descriptions of Kansas, "great" and "green" versus "low," "flat," "brown."  In Stoner the style reflects the plainspokenness of the protagonist; here it becomes both chilling and chilly, emphasizing the fundamental difference between Andrews and the natural world he hopes to access.  There is no vocabulary sufficient to describe it; it effaces vocabulary, as it does in the six months Andrews' party spends in the snow barely speaking to each other.

But perhaps the most chilling aspect of Butcher's Crossing is not the slaughter of the buffalo hunt, or the unceasing trauma of the Colorado winter, but what happens--spoiler alert, I guess--when the party returns to Butcher's Crossing.  The market for buffalo hides has bottomed out, and the thousands of hides which they have left stored for safekeeping in Colorado are worth an infinitesimal fraction of what they invested in the operation.  Butcher's Crossing itself is basically a ghost town.  Andrews doesn't need the money, really, but it underscores the futility of his Transcendental dream.  Not only has the experience isolated him, separated him somehow from human life, the failure of the buffalo market precludes the last hope of his successful reintegration into the civilization he didn't know he longed for.  The last image is, like every good cinema Western, of Andrews riding off into the sunset alone.

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