Books

On Steve Almond's ​Feeling-Fueled Rant on John Williams' 'Stoner'

From the cover of Catalan Publishing's Stoner (paperback, 2015)

Sink into the metatextual delights of a touchstone ranting about his own touchstone with Steve Almond's Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life.

William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life
Steve Almond

Ig Publishing

June 2019

Other

It's only just come to my attention that there is a potentially really excellent book series that Ig Publishing has been curating since 2016. Bookmarked has ten entries at this point, all of which are 200 pages of a reasonably esteemed prose writer discussing their personal and literary connection to someone else's reasonably esteemed book.

What we have here is a series of very strong voices with moderate name recognition talking about the books that have inspired them deeply. These are often minor works by widely acclaimed and prominent authors like Vonnegut and Fitzgerald. The series includes Steve Yarborough on Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show (1966), Michael Seidlinger on Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), Brian Evenson on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). Do you know these guys? Have you read these books that they love? They finally published one of my favorite guys, Steve Almond on John Williams' Stoner (1965).

I read all of Almond's nonfiction books. He's one of my favorites because we get interested in similar subjects about which we usually conclude with similar opinions, and I admire the fact that he's found a voice that makes him seem like a mensch despite frequent confessions of his faults. If he'd bottle that and sell it to me as a salve for the worst of my meanness, I'd totally buy it.

So I came by the Bookmarked series most honestly and was extremely psyched to study Almond's study of one of his own touchstones—even though I'd never even heard of Stoner or John Williams. How much of an uphill battle is it to immerse yourself in and enjoy a book by a dude you like, when that book is about some other guy's book that you have never read? Turns out, none whatsoever.

For me, Almond's enthusiasm for a subject has always been infectious. I knew a lot about junk food and rock 'n' roll before diving into his books on those subjects and loved those books for the way I could involve myself in a dialogue with them. But sometimes it's also quite nice to learn something new, isn't it? This is why we take book recommendations from our friends in the first place. Almond once briefly caused me to feel interested in football, so why not get metatextual and allow him to persuade me that I should pick up Stoner? Spoiler alert: he did convince me and it's been added to my reading list.

The entirely of the Bookmarked series seems aimed at recommending for revival some books that for one reason or another were underrated in their own time, and it is a good deed for Ig Publishing to proliferate them more widely. Perhaps the majority of people reading Almond's take will be rowing my boat, and Almond carefully ensures that we can keep afloat through bits and pieces of quotation from the source, but the main thing is that readers can drift along on the tide of his profound approbation for Stoner.

This series is for feeling-fueled rants, not stuffy block-quote-laden analyses. We don't need to have read the page by page original conflict between Stoner and his antagonists; we just need to see the play by play application of the lessons that emerged from Stoner as they occur to Almond during a lifetime of rereading this book. He first gets his hands on it in graduate school, and it deeply imprints his evolution as an academic, in addition to later making him a more reflective husband, father, teacher, and citizen.

He is also clear on the faults of Stoner. It was written in 1965, so you probably already know what its faults are: the man is quietly overburdened and slowly martyred, the woman is flatly and hysterically evil, and other conventions we can file away under #yesallmodernism. And yet there is some interested analysis of classism in a more agrarian Gatsby mode, some courageous anti-war sentiment well before it was fashionable, and a type of restraint in the prose that was almost laughably against the grain at the time of its publication.

Almond zooms in on the way Stoner articulates the battles of every inner life, including ours and Almond's and Williams'. These battles have an innate timelessness in their motifs that Almond then artfully tracks through the shifting contexts of his apprehension of its lessons. He pokes at old wounds, opening them again and again in homage to and in service of the legacy of the unrelieved narrative technique that impressed him so mightily in Stoner in the first place.

If you've ever read Stoner, you have no doubt of the need of Almond's moving tribute to it. If you have not read Stoner, Almond will convince you that you should. If you have not read Steve Almond, hopefully I have convinced you that you should do that first. And now I've got to go pick up a copy of Stoner. For now, our metatexual circle is complete—but Almond says there's likely to be a movie.

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