This is a tremendous book. It concerns the journey of a young man from the "civilised" east into the "uncivilised" west in search of something unconfined and new, and the impact of what he discovers there in the savagery of the buffalo hunt. Several other books came to mind while I was reading this including "The Heart of Darkness," "The Old Man and The Sea," and very definitely "Moby Dick." If you are looking for a conventional western tale, this book may not be for you. There is no gun-slinging; there are no Indians or sheriffs - instead there is life on the edge of things, without morality or restraint, and the hypnotic fascination of slaughter and destruction. And the changes on the individual characters that elemental experience creates, as man rampages through the diminishing wilderness. But while there may be allegory, there is also a riveting story of hardship and survival that is as gripping as it is realistic. We get the smell of the west, or the stench rather, and the burn of the sun and the brutality of the hard country and the snow, and - as the doomed buffalo are skinned - the peeling away of the outer layers of civilisation to show the raw meat underneath. The book is divided into three parts: preparations to head out for the wild country; the finding, the killing and the marooned months of the buffalo hunt itself; and the return to the town of Butcher's Crossing, from which the hunting party set out. Each part has its own strength and brilliance. The final part is apocalyptic and the very end masterly. I had never heard of John Williams before happily stumbling across the kindle edition of this book. For me it had almost everything you look for in a novel: a strong story, sharp characterizations, pace, fine writing, and that other revelatory layer beneath it all that stays in the mind for a long, long time.
Shamefully John Williams is new to me, but not for long as I will now read all of his work because of the pleasure I got from Butcher's Crossing. It is a western, but not a gun slinging, Indian fighting type of western. It is much more than that. Andrews a young man from a privileged Boston background sets out to find himself and his purpose on the edge of civilisation's still Wild West. Starting in Kansas he finances a buffalo hunt into the mountains of Colorado. There are four main characters: Miller the stoic hunt leader, his alcoholic side kick and wagon master Charlie Hoge, the skinner Fred Schnider and young Andrews himself . The journey to the "hidden valley" in itself makes for a fine gripping yarn as they battle against the terrain with an unwieldy wagon and for a time a desperate lack of water. The slaughter of the beasts is unrelenting as Miller driven by blood lust or dollar greed determines to kill every one of the several thousand buffalo who have peacefully summered in this valley for centuries. Andrews learns under the tutelage of Schnider how to skin and stretch the hides and how to butcher the carcasses for sustenance. Gradually the youthful slack body becomes that of a hard man. Charlie like a true alcoholic quietly goes about the business of running the camp sustained by whiskey laced coffee. Never drunk , but never entirely sober and never far from his Bible.There is constant conflict between Miller and Schnider as to a limit to the killing and when to leave the valley before being trapped by winter snow. Andrews tries to be the voice of reason ,but is out of his depth in this situation while Charlie blindly and faithfully sides with Miller. There is a dubious possibly homosexual relationship between these two. Apart from the four main players there are other cameo appearances at Butchers crossing of the shrewd , hides dealer McDonald and the whore with a soft side , Francine who falls for Andrews . The descriptions of the journeys, the hunt, life on the edge and the weapons and tools are fascinating and based I am sure on much research. As is the precarious economics of a buffalo hunt. Such detailed descriptions add immensely to the reality of the story. This book pre dates the best of Cormac McCarthy's work and McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and in many ways excels both. From me this is high praise. Some scholars see it as an allegory for the Vietnam War. I don't know about that, but I know that for me it is an impressive piece of writing to be enjoyed on several levels. Yes it is that good; and a must read for anyone interested in this time and place in history or anyone with an interest in well researched , clean, absorbing writing.