Thursday, 10 April 2014

Butcher's Crossing, by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing takes its title from the town in which the book starts. A town in only the most rudimentary sense- barber's, tavern, dry goods, stables...It's pretty basic, but it's hoped that when the rail road passes through, it will become a large and flourishing town. 

Harvard Graduate Will Andrews arrives in Butcher's Crossing, aiming to find his"Unalterable Self". After making his enquiries about how a young man tired of the city might find adventure in the West, he falls in with a  man named Miller, an experienced hunter that has been looking for a financial backer for an epic enterprise. A hidden valley in the Colorado mountains, teeming with Buffalo- herds of a size that haven't been seen for decades. At $3 or $4 a hide, these skins would fetch a pretty decent fortune for the men mad enough to attempt to collect them.

Recruiting an experienced but cagey skinner and an alcoholic one-handed cart driver (lost to frostbite on a previous Colorado jaunt), Andrews and Miller set off into the wilderness with nothing but Miller's decades old memories for guidance. It becomes a fish out of water narrative- a city dweller unfamiliar with the moods of nature, with horses and with slaughter.

I like the idea of Butcher's Crossing- the Holy Grail of expeditions. It's tense in parts, a bit disgusting in others. The scale and the majesty of the Middle Western landscape is simply but effectively written- the mountains feel fresh but deadly and the plains feel never-ending. I like the idea that best laid plans can go wrong, and when they do, men are being pared back to the bare essentials of survival and experience; the cold, the heat, the thirst. The months of isolation and the squabbling and resentment that four people cooped up together against their will are bound to eventually descend into. It's a harsh story of survival against the odds in appalling and treacherous conditions. It's about obsession and loneliness and chance. I also liked the idea that fortunes can be made and lost in a day, that it's all down to luck rather than enterprise or skill, and that it just depends what hand you're dealt on the day.

I do like Westerns. Cormac McCarthy gets two thumbs up. I like survival narratives and I don't mind books where nothing mush happens. I really should have liked this. But unfortunately this novel just failed to strike a chord with me. It's not a bad book, by any stretch. It's atmospheric and stylish. I feel like I could pretty much skin a buffalo and that I'd know what to do if I got caught in a blizzard or had to cross a bridge-less river, but I don't feel satisfied with what I got from this novel. I skipped bits, which is unheard of. I don't know what it was. Maybe the characters just failed to ender themselves. Maybe they weren't supposed to. Maybe the characters were supposed to be as transient as the fortunes they were seeking and as forgettable as the frontiersman's way of life.

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