One of my writing teachers said that readers of fiction secretly like to read about process, any kind of process — the process of cross-examining a witness or landing a plane or making cupcakes. When a process is well-described, with expertise, and an integral role in the story, readers love it, because they feel they are learning something along the way.
Butcher’s Crossing puts this idea to the test with big swathes of the book dedicated to process — but what a heart-rending and utterly American process it is, of the destruction of the great buffalo herds. The novel describes in meticulous detail the processes of boundless slaughter and skinning and sale, but also of how to keep oxen moving when they are dying of thirst, and of how to survive a winter when snowbound in the high country of the Rockies. (Another way of putting this is, as the Guardian says, “this book very nicely fits into the contemporary vogue for survival-manual entertainment as exemplified by films such as Gravity and All Is Lost.”)
The writing flows clear and elegant:
Without waiting for a reply, he turned again and walked toward the spring that trickled down some seventy-five yards beyond their camp. At the spring he removed his shirt; the blood from the buffalo was beginning to stiffen on his undershirt. As quickly as he could, he removed the rest of his clothing and stood in the late afternoon shadow, shivering in the cool air. From his chest to below his navel was the brownish red stain of buffalo blood; and in removing his clothing, his arms and hands had brushed against other parts of his body so that they was blotched with stains hued from a pale vermilion to a deep brownish crimson. He thrust his hands into the icy pool formed by the spring. The cold water clotted the blood, and for a moment he feared thathe could not remove it from his skin. Then it floated away in solid tendrils…
The horse was reluctant to go in; it advanced a few steps into the graveled bed of a shallow eddy and halted, lifting its feet, one by one, and shaking them delicately just above the surface. Miller patted the animal on its shoulder, and ran his fingers through its mane, leaning forward to speak soothingly in its ear. The horse went forward; the water flowed and parted whitely around its fetlocks, and as it advanced the water rose upward, until it flowed around the shanks and then around the knees. Miller led the horse in a zigzag path across the river; when it slipped on the smooth underwater rocks, Miller let it stand still for a moment and soothed it with small pats, speaking softly. In the middle of the river, the water rose above Miller’s stirruped feet and submerged the belly of the horse, parting on its shoulder and though. Very slowly, Miller zigzagged to shallower water; in a few minutes, he was across the river and on dry land. He waved, and the pushed his horse back into the water, zigzagging again so that the lines of his return intersected the lines of his going.
The novel is also a coming of age story for a young Easterner, Will Andrews, who has traveled west to find himself and his place in the world. He falls in with a crew of marvelous characters, especially the hunter Miller — we watch, horrified, as Miller obsessively works to destroy the creatures that form the core of the world that he loves. It is a great novel, a national tragedy of the commons dramatized as individual catastrophe.
Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960. The author, John Williams, is probably best known for his novel Stoner. (Which isn’t about what you think it’s about if all you know is the title. It is the story of an academic, William Stoner and his life of quiet desperation — not a promising premise for a novel, but so beautifully wrought that writers have been recommending to one another for years, and it became a surprise best seller in Europe last year. I liked Stoner, but I liked Butcher’s Crossing even more.) Williams’s novel Augustus won the 1973 National Book Award.
Things it is like:
The NYRB edition of Butcher’s Crossing includes an introduction by Michelle Latiolais that describes Butcher’s Crossing as one of a trio of great demythologizing Westerns, alongside Blood Meridian and Warlock. (Whether Butcher’s Crossing is properly considered a “Western” when it doesn’t include cowboys or shootouts is a debate left to the reader.) All three are great books.
Things it is not like:
Butcher’s Crossing describes how the large-scale slaughter and sale of buffalo hides was driven by an Eastern fad for buffalo robes. One character comments, “Why they wanted them in the first place, I don’t know; you never can really get the stink out of them.”