Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Back in 1960, John Williams published Butcher’s Crossing; ostensibly a Western, it is the story of a young man’s journey into the dark heart of the American wilderness, a trip that leads to death and destruction. Five years later Williams moved on to a very different type of book with Stoner, a sensitive character study set within the world of academia. While the success of recent reissues of Stoner has generated a renewal of interest in Williams’ work, it is probably fair to say that Butcher’s Crossing remains less widely read. A shame really as this is a very intelligent novel, full of insights into the darker side of humanity and the consequences that can occur if this remains unchecked.

The central protagonist in Butcher’s Crossing is Will Andrews, an open and imaginative young man keen to see something more of the country he calls his home. As the novel begins, Andrews is travelling to Butcher’s Crossing, a small Kansas settlement in the heart of the Midwest – the year is 1873. Having left his studies in Harvard, he hopes to find some greater meaning in life by getting closer to the freedom of the land. In essence, Andrews is embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, one he trusts will give him a greater insight into his own character and future direction in life.

On his arrival in the rough and ready town, Andrews gains an introduction to Miller, a seasoned yet maverick buffalo hunter with several years’ experience of working the prairies. Before long, Miller entices Andrews into financing a hunting expedition to a hidden valley deep in the midst of the Colorado mountains, supposedly home to more than three thousand buffalo complete with prime hides. The location of the valley is known only to Miller who last visited the area some ten years earlier while trapping for beavers. There is a sense that Miller might be spinning a tall tale about this mythical herd of buffalo, large groupings being something of a rarity these days – with the market for buffalo skins in the ascendancy, the animals have been hunted with a vengeance, a development which has resulted in a significant thinning out of the herds. Nevertheless, Andrews, in his hunger for a taste of the West, is willing to take his chances with the persuasive hunter. As a consequence, the party is completed by Miller’s trusty sidekick, Charley Hoge, a one-handed, alcoholic, Bible-reading camp man/cook, and Schneider, an experienced skinner of hides. It will be Miller’s role to lead the group, a position that creates considerable tension amongst the men especially when the trip gets underway.

Once their preparations are complete, the group sets off for Colorado, accompanied by horses and a team of oxen to draw the wagon. Williams is particularly adept at capturing the gruelling nature of the journey across the prairies: the physical exhaustion and soreness from riding over the hard terrain; the extreme thirst from a lack of fresh water; the monotonous routine of performing the same tasks time and time again as the days merge together into one long continuum. Nevertheless, Andrews clearly feels the undeniable pull of the land; it is almost as if his whole life has been leading up to this point, his previous existence fading into insignificance by comparison.

Andrews felt that the mountains drew them onward, and drew them with increasing intensity as they came nearer, as if they were a giant lodestone whose influence increased to the degree that it was more nearly approached. As they came nearer he had again the feeling that he was being absorbed, included in something with which he had had no relation before; but unlike the feeling of absorption he had experienced on the anonymous prairie, this feeling was one which promised, however vaguely, a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name. (p. 106)

In his determination to find the valley, Miller pushes the team onwards by the most direct route possible even when it means risking the lives of his companions and their animals. Much to the annoyance of Schneider, the group has to survive without fresh supplies of water for a couple of days, a move that ends up putting the whole expedition in jeopardy.

Eventually, Miller finds the entrance to the secluded valley – as promised, the buffalo are there in abundance, maybe three or four thousand in total. It is here that Andrews’ initiation into the true nature of the hunt really begins as Miller wastes no time in embarking upon a frenzied cull of these noble and dignified mammals. Once he has identified and taken out the leader of the pack, Miller falls into a swift, steady rhythm, firing and reloading systematically until the ground is littered with buffalo corpses. Unsurprisingly, Andrews is shocked and horrified by this senseless savagery, to the extent that he begins to question his own character, values and identity.

During the last hour of the stand he came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that tolled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself. And he looked upon himself, crawling dumbly after Miller upon the flat bed of the valley, picking up the empty cartridges that he spent, tugging the water keg, husbanding the rifle, cleaning it, offering it to Miller when he needed it—he looked upon himself, and did not know who he was, or where he went. (p. 137)

After the first day’s haul of more than one hundred buffalo, it soon becomes clear that Miller is intent on decimating the whole herd. Schneider and Andrews can barely keep up with their leader as they struggle to skin the carcasses before rigor mortis sets in, a process that leaves them exhausted and bruised, mentally as well as physically.

Schneider and Andrews had to work more and more swiftly to skin the animals Miller left strewn upon the ground; almost never were they able to finish rather skinning before sundown, so that nearly every morning they were up before dawn hacking tough skins from stiff buffalo. And during the day, as they sweated and hacked and pulled in a desperate effort to keep up with Miller, they could hear the sound of his rifle steadily and monotonously and insistently pounding at the silence, and pounding at their nerves until they were raw and bruised. (p. 159)

Where this novel really excels is in the characterisation of the four men, each one distinctive and fully painted on the page. As the hunt continues, further tensions emerge within the group, especially between Miller and the rather stubborn yet practical Schneider. Once again Miller’s dogmatic behaviour threatens the very safety of the men and their animals as they are forced to camp out in the mountains over the winter months, trapped by the snow following a sudden heavy blizzard. They cling to a precarious existence, taking shelter in a makeshift lean-to fashioned out of foraged materials and buffalo hides from the cull. There are moments when Andrews wonders if they will ever make it out of there alive – and if so, what life will mean to him in the months and years that follow.

Butcher’s Crossing is a truly excellent novel, one that highlights the sheer futility of the obsessive pursuit of power, wealth and the Great American Dream – the closing section of the story plays a particularly important role in underscoring the senselessness and stupidity of everything that has gone before. Moreover, Williams doesn’t hold back on the brutality of life in the wilderness. There is an honesty in his portrayal of the darker side of humanity, especially in relation to Miller, a man who takes certain things to the extreme in his mindless determination to destroy. The descriptions of hunting and skinning buffalo are highly graphic too, possibly not for the sensitive or fainthearted. Nevertheless, there is great beauty here as well, not least in Williams’ well-judged prose and his lyrical descriptions of the land. I’ll finish with a brief passage from the middle of the novel as Andrews first catches sight of Miller’s hidden valley, a vision of paradise just there for the taking.

For perhaps three hundred yards, the trail cut down between the pines; but at that point, abruptly, the land leveled. A long narrow valley, flat as the top of a table, wound among the mountains. Lush grass grew on the bed of the valley and waved gently in the breeze as far as the eye could see. A quietness seemed to rise from the valley; it was the quietness, the stillness, the absolute calm of a land where no human foot had touched. (p. 117)

Butcher’s Crossing is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

53 thoughts on “Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

  1. Tredynas Days

    I enjoyed Stoner when it was first reissued a few years ago, but have hesitated about this one. Still not entirely convinced, though I’m not averse to Western fiction- Cormac McCarthy is usually gripping (though not exactly a true ‘Western’ writer).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cormac McCarthy is a great reference point as Butcher’s is definitely in the same ballpark as some of his best novels, Blood Meridian in particular. This novel is very, very different to Stoner in a number of respects – not always an easy read, but a very gripping one.

      Reply
  2. Anneontheshelf

    Thanks for this. I’ve read Stoner and this has been on my TBR for a while. This encourages me to move it up.

    Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    Buffalo hunters? Hmmm, not sure I can cope with that. It’s funny how I quite like farming books set in Europe or Asia, you know, where you feel the connection with the land and the seasons, and that the people have always belonged there. While the Western type of stories are (to my mind) a little too close to plundering and spoiling land. Sorry, that’s probably a very biased and ignorant opinion (and it certainly didn’t stop me enjoying Westerns as a child).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, not at all. I can totally see where you’re coming from with that thought. This isn’t a novel for everyone – and as I intimated in my review, Williams doesn’t hold back on the descriptions of Miller’s senseless destruction of the buffalo herd. There’s a lot of plundering and spoiling nature here – but then again. it’s a morality tale, one with a strong message about the sheer futility of these actions. By the end of the story, it’s very clear where Williams’ sympathies lie.

      On the subject of novels that convey a sense of connection with the land and the people who live there, have you read any of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong novels set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado? If not, I would strongly recommend them. He writes with such grace and compassion, a writer with a strong sense of humanity.

      Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Eventide is the second book in his Plainsong trilogy, so if you’re going to read that you must start with Plainsong – a couple of the characters flow through to Eventide, and you really need to know their backstory to get the full benefit! As far as I know, Our Souls at Night is a complete standalone, so that would definitely be an option. (I haven’t read it yet but plan to at some point.) Plus there’s a film on the way starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda – not sure when it’ll be released but that’s another reason to read it.

              Reply
  4. Lady Fancifull

    Like many, I adored Stoner, and your review makes me think I should try this. I have liked the odd Western – Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, which I came to on the back of a wonderful mini series with Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Anjelika Houston as the leads. Your buffalo skinning excerpt is a bit strong with the morning porridge, but I might try!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      If you do try it, let me know how you get on. I’d be curious to know. I felt I had to include a quote about the relentless nature of the buffalo cull, just to be totally upfront with people about the nature of that section. It comes right in the middle of the novel, and the frenzied nature of it seems pivotal to the story. Not an easy section to read but any stretch of the imagination, but an important one. It’s definitely there for a reason.

      I shall have to take a look at Lonesome Dove, especially the mini series with Tommy Lee Jones – one of my favourite actors. Thanks for that!

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        HAH! Jacqui – another point of connection – me too, (TLJ) I heartily recommend Lonesome Dove, in both formats. (tempted to fish it out and watch again) Duvall and Lee Jones are absolutely, properly, AWESOME (without demeaning an often overused word) You are almost bound to laugh, be absorbed, educated, – and sob your heart out. It is a brilliant ‘buddy movie’ or, to be more accurate, buddy miniseries

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Wow, high praise indeed! I loved TLJ in the Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men, definitely a highlight of that film for me. Lonesome Dove sounds excellent too – I’m off to check it out right now…

          Reply
  5. susanosborne55

    I started this after reading Stoner but found it too different. My partner loved it, however, so it’s back in my TBR pile. Your final quote is particularly beautiful, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s worth another try, Susan, especially if H liked it too. You might have to steel yourself for the middle section as it’s pretty full-on, but it does come to an end eventually. I’m glad you like that final quote. Beautiful, isn’t it? I suppose I wanted to give a balanced view of the book – the good, the bad and the ugly, so to speak.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, yes. I haven’t read it myself, but I do recall a couple of mentions of brutal scenes. You’ll probably be fine, then – hopefully it won’t come as too much of a shock!

          Reply
  6. roughghosts

    I have lukewarm feelings about Stoner and some say this book is better. I have to be in the mood for western themed books myself, in part because I live in a place where the myth/reality of the “wild west” (Canadian version) is celebrated every year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      *Whispers* I think it’s a better book than Stoner. While I liked that novel, I didn’t love it it the way that others seemed to. Maybe the hype put me off a little, but I wasn’t blown away by it. The characterisation is very strong here, as is the moral message at the book’s centre. Nevertheless, I can understand your hesitation over Westerns given your comments above. If it’s any help, I think Williams’ sympathies are very much aligned with young Andrews (and against Miller) – the senselessness and futility of the destruction come through loud and clear.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely very different from Stoner, almost like the work of another writer. That said, there are moments of great beauty here, especially in the depictions of the land and natural world.

      If I’m being honest, I don’t think this is your cup of tea either as some of the scenes are pretty brutal. If anything, I would be tempted to steer you towards the novels of Kent Haruf – see my replies to Marina above. While they aren’t Westerns, they do depict the lives of ordinary folk with a strong connection to the land or place they call home. I can’t recall if you’ve ever read him, but if not, I think you would love his style. He writes very simply but beautifully, and his stories are shot though with a strong sense of compassion/humanity. An underrated writer, I think.

      Reply
  7. Rebecca Foster

    It’s so interesting how different Williams’s three novels are from each other. I’ve read Stoner and this one, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as you I think it’s a rewarding book that would appeal to people who don’t think they like Westerns. His other book is different again: an epistolary novel about a Roman emperor!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, incredibly different! And I agree with you when you say it’s a novel that would suit readers who don’t normally gravitate towards Westerns. I think it would appeal to people who enjoy a damn good story, something with a sense of adventure and a moral message at its heart. Funnily enough, Augustus had never really appealed to me before as I’m not a big lover of historical fiction, especially something set in within the context of the Roman Empire – but now that I’ve read Butcher’s Crossing, I might have to reconsider.

      Reply
      1. Rebecca Foster

        I generally love historical fiction, but ancient Greece/Rome is one setting I’m not at all interested in, so I too have not sought out Augustus despite a love of epistolary novels. I reckon Williams could make something of that unpromising material, however!

        Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui. Like Marina Sofia, I am a little uncomfortable with the American West because of what lies behind the popular myth of the cowboy. And certainly I would struggle with the brutality. Though I really should read Stoner eventually!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I understand. It’s certainly not a novel for everyone, which is why I tried to be upfront about the bloodshed and brutality in my review. To tell you the truth, I’m bit of a closet fan of Westerns, films in particular. Not that I would want to watch one every week, but every now and again is fine. Funnily enough, I have a copy of the Charles Portis novel ‘True Grit’ knocking around somewhere. I first read it many years ago, possibly when I was in college or in my twenties. Who knows, I might even dig it out again for your next club…

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        I’m with you on this. It’s inexplicable to me, but I have found myself really enjoying classic western tales, in print and on screen, even though I object vehemently to some aspects of their tale-telling. (So contradictory!) And I also agree that the brutality can be necessary in order to illustrate the culmination of unchecked greed. Even though I haven’r read Stoner, and only have those kinda vague “someday” ideas about doing so, I really enjoyed reading the comments and review and discussions here about Williams’ works.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s funny, isn’t it? There’s something very compelling about these stories which tap into the darker sides of humanity – the same is true of noir fiction to a large extent. The brutality is an important part of the narrative as the frenzied buffalo cull is there for a reason – to illustrate the sheer horror and senselessness of Miller’s actions, driven as he is by unmitigated greed. Fortunately, by the end of the novel, the reader is left in absolutely no doubt about the futility of the kill as the underlying moral message of the novel is very clear. That’s one of the reasons why I liked it so much.

          Reply
  9. Naomi

    This is the first review I’ve read about this book. I haven’t read Stoner, but the premise of this one appeals to me more than Stoner’s does!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I must admit to preferring this to the much-lauded Stoner. Don’t get me wrong, Stoner’s a very good novel, and it’s definitely worth considering. I just don’t think it’s the masterpiece that some people consider it to be!

      Reply
  10. madamebibilophile

    This wouldn’t have appealed to me at all if I just happened across it – I’m really not one for Westerns. But you’ve convinced me! I’ll have to dig Stoner out of the TBR pile first though…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. I don’t think the label ‘Western’ does it many favours as it may have deterred some people from reading it or picking it up. In reality, it’s probably more of an adventure story or cautionary tale – it just happens to place in the Wild West. Not that I don’t think the setting is important – the nature of life in the wilderness and the myths associated with it are crucial elements – but it’s not necessarily a Western in the traditional sense.

      Reply
  11. Jonathan

    I hope to read some more Williams including this one. You may also like John Ehle’s ‘The Land Breakers’ which is set in North Carolina in the late 18th C – it’s another NYRB book.

    Reply
  12. Caroline

    I’m pretty sure this isn’t for me. Buffalo hunting . . . Too harsh for me. I’m sure it’s excellent and i would enjoy the characterisations which yu found well done, but I’ve got just too many other books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I agree – it’s not a book I would recommend to you as the buffalo cull is brutal and relentless. I thought it best to be reasonably upfront about that as I knew it would be an issue for some readers.

      Reply
  13. bookbii

    This sounds like an interesting book Jacqui. The whole Stoner phenomena passed me by, I’m not sure why exactly but it never really appealed. This sounds like a more interesting proposition, perhaps because I’m so much more interested now in books that explore how humans and nature coincide, both positively and destructively. I’m still not sure I’m drawn to Williams though. It’s strange, sometimes, how hype around a book (or a movie, for that matter) can turn people off. Which is the better read, in your view?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      While they’re both very good books, Butcher’s Crossing probably edges it for me, but that might be because (unlike Stoner) it’s still very fresh in my mind. That said, I’m not sure I would recommend it you as I’m aware or your sensitivity around some of the darker facets of human nature. There are some brutal scenes here which are hard to stomach. Of the two, I think you would fare better with Stoner – but that’s not to say you should definitely read it, especially if you’ve been put off by the hype!

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    As a child of the seventies I, of course, loved Western films – though it’s not a genre which has been well treated by literature (Cormac McCarthy aside). This sounds like something I would enjoy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Like you, I have childhood memories of Western movies – my father was a big fan of the genre! I think you would enjoy this book, Grant. I found the narrative very compelling.

      Reply
  15. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. Kat

    Williams reminds me a bit of Willa Cather’s novels, and though I liked Stoner, I’m not as crazy about it as most readers. I prefer his National Book Award-winning historical novel, Augustus. But he has such a small oeuvre though that it’s ridiculous I haven’t read this. Great review! I wouldn’t have considered trying Butcher’s Crossing otherwise.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Willa Cather is a really interesting reference point! I haven’t read enough of her novels to build up a good view of her work yet, but I do recall the strong connection with the land in My Antonia – in particular, the sense that nature can be brutal as well as beautiful. As for Augustus, you’re the third person to recommend it to me. I wouldn’t normally be interested in stories about the Roman Empire, but as it’s Williams I shall have to take a closer look. Thanks for that.

      Reply

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