Right from the start author John Williams (who did not write the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme) lets you know that Stoner is not going to be a wild thrill ride. In perfunctory sentences he notes the year of William Stoner’s birth, his attendance at the University of Missouri and subsequent career as a professor there, and his death. He goes on to note how few people remember Stoner well.
Those first few sentences are a story unto themselves but of course they’re not the whole story. Williams, in flawlessly composed prose, details Stoner’s early life on a farm as the child of uneducated parents. Sent to the state university to learn the newest ideas in agricultural science, Stoner instead finds himself enraptured by a required literature course and majors in English instead. Originally an unimpressive student, his passion and diligence carry him through and impress his advisor, who convinces him to get a doctorate.
Thus does Stoner embark on his life’s work as a professor of literature, focusing on medieval texts. Over the course of his career he meets and marries an utterly unsuitable woman, produces one child who gradually distances herself from him, picks a fight with an influential colleague that damages his career, and finds real love far too late for it to make a lasting difference.
All in all it’s a small, circumspect life yet one with ups and downs, with drama and stakes. And yet, while certainly more eventful than those first few sentences would have you believe, when it comes right down to it it still doesn’t amount to much, does it?
The wonder of Stoner is that the writing can make you feel deeply for a regular, unimportant, even uninteresting person, even as it reminds you that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if you do or you don’t.