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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

An Intimate Portrait Of Inadequacy

Stoner - John Edward Williams

William Stoner is an only child who grows up on a farm in rural America in the early years of the twentieth century. His parents are persuaded by the county agent to send him to the local college where a course has been started in agricultural science.

A gauche and inarticulate student, William's life is transformed by a compulsory introductory English course and he abandons Agricultural Science for Literature. He does not return to the farm at the end of his degree but instead finds a niche for himself in academia.

The novel follows the rest of William's life, through his unhappy marriage, the shipwreck of his career, his doomed affair with a female student and his daughter's alcoholism, all the way to his death from cancer. That makes it sound like a thoroughly miserable book but that would be an entirely inaccurate description. What rescues this novel from misery is the author's ability to find a beauty in awkwardness and to make a kind of poetry out of his character's inarticulacy.

William Stoner is a man who discovers in literature 'the epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.' Unfortunately, he is unable to find the same clarity in the real world. Yet, despite enduring frustration, disappointment, lovelessness and emotional cruelty, he remains faithful to his revelation. Perceiving a truth and a purity in literature, he strives constantly and stubbornly to inhabit that truth. This is an intimate and moving portrait of an inadequate but rigorously honest man.