Longform

Sixteen years after his death, not-so-famous novelist John Williams is finding his audience

It was 1962 when Joanne Greenberg started getting curious about a writer named John Williams. In those days, what passed for Denver's literary scene could (and often did) fit comfortably in one room — a small band of authors and culture promoters who bumped into each other repeatedly at cocktail parties, lectures, book signings and other events.

Greenberg was thirty years old. She'd just published her first novel, The King's Persons, and was working on a second, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which would be a formidable commercial and critical success. Williams was a decade older, an English professor at the University of Denver and a smiling, urbane presence at parties — a drink in one hand, cigarette in the other.

"Williams? He writes Westerns," someone told her.

Greenberg didn't know anybody who wrote Westerns, and Williams didn't look like someone who did. He was short and dapper, with a neat beard and "a face like a five-day rain," she recalls. He invariably wore a white shirt, a blazer, an ascot instead of a tie — and sometimes a red cummerbund. Other than spies and diplomats, who wore a red cummerbund?

Yet that deeply lined face had seen things. After the two appeared on a couple of panels together, it became obvious to Greenberg that John Williams was a serious man — serious about his work and literature in general. When she learned that he had a new novel coming out, she decided to pick up a copy.

The book was Stoner. Sitting in a car in a parking lot, Greenberg opened her purchase with some trepidation. What if it was awful?

It wasn't a Western. It was the story of an obscure university professor, a teacher whose life and career are steeped in disappointment and failure. Greenberg slipped into the first couple of paragraphs — and was quickly in the deep end. "By the fourth sentence, I knew I was in good hands," she says now. "I was just sitting there, getting blown away."

Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past...

As she was drawn into the oddly compelling work, Greenberg realized that this was how she wanted to write — clear as a mountain creek, without gimmicks or glitz, almost without words. It was the kind of seemingly effortless performance that requires tremendous skill and profound reserves of discipline and love. "He wrote like a Shaker would ski, without a wasted motion," she says. "It was without ego. But that doesn't mean without personality."

The next time she saw Williams, Greenberg raved about Stoner. The book is terrific, she said.

"I think so, too," Williams replied — and then, with typical modesty, began to chat about other things.

Williams published three masterful works of fiction in a twelve-year span, all misleadingly labeled as "historical novels" but vastly different from one another. Each one was greeted with wretched sales and was soon out of print — even though the last one, Augustus, won the National Book Award for fiction, the only work by a Colorado author ever to do so.

People sometimes confuse Williams with the African-American writer John A. Williams, or even with the composer of Star Wars. Yet every few years some astute and influential critic rediscovers Denver's John Williams, with the same shock of recognition Greenberg experienced sitting in her car back in 1965. "Why isn't this book famous?" C.P. Snow asked, writing about Stoner in 1973, after it finally found a publisher in Great Britain.

"John is almost famous for not being famous," Williams compadre Dan Wakefield complained in 1986. "This is Hemingway without bluster, Fitzgerald without fashion, Faulkner stripped of pomp."

Writing in the New York Times in 2007, Morris Dickstein called Stoner "something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away." Other Williams enthusiasts have heaped praise on Butcher's Crossing — described as the finest Western ever written and as the first anti-Western — and on Augustus, an astonishing journey through the rise of imperial Rome.

Sixteen years after his death from emphysema at the age of 71, Williams has developed a cult following on college campuses, promulgated in part by generations of his former creative-writing students, now teaching in other MFA programs. And his work seems poised on the brink of much wider recognition. In recent years, all three of his major novels have been reissued in handsome paperbacks. Stoner showed up in Time earlier this year on a short list of "recommended reading" from Tom Hanks. And Focus Features has announced that a movie version of Butcher's Crossing is now in development with director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead) and screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road).

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast