This is a reread of a novel I picked up a few years ago when everyone (including me) was rediscovering John Williams. Initially, while I liked this a lot, I didn’t like it as much as I liked his other novel Stoner. Rereading it has made the novel grow in my estimation and esteem. This truly is a great novel.
We meet Andrews, fresh out of Harvard College, coming to Colorado for unclear personal reasons. He shows up in the town Butcher’s Crossing, introduces himself to the local buffalo hide merchant who apparently knew his father years ago, and tells him he’s looking for work. The merchant immediately offers him work in the trading post, but it’s clear that Andrews wants to work on a buffalo hunting crew. He is sent to the saloon where he meets Williams and Hodge, a hunter and his slightly-touched friend. They discuss terms and Andrew agrees to fund a hunt in an unscouted area farther west.
As they set off, it’s clear that Andrews has no idea what he wants from this trip, and certainly doesn’t know who he is as a person, evidenced by a series of interactions with a prostitute in town before he left. He found himself horrified by her nakedness, and deeply wounded by her compassion for the young Andrews.
The hunt goes extraordinarily well and Andrews and his crew is swimming in dead buffalo and Andrews struggles to hide the buffalo, to field dress one for food, and various other important tasks. We learn that he’s not good, but not the worst either.
The novel continues as they men get trapped in the snow for a long winter.
The writing in this book is incredibly affecting and disturbing at times. The absolute horror of the hunt seen through Andrews eyes, the trappings of unformed and undefined senses of masculinity, and the deep violence and pain of America as a place and a concept.
This is among the most anti-Western Westerns, I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a few). The mythology of the West is laid so bare and in such disgusting terms throughout this novel and that’s without a single moment of violence against a fellow man.