Reading challenges can take you places you never thought you’d go. I saw the NYRB Reading Week as an excuse to visit second hand book stores in search of spines with the NYRB logo. Of the four I found, one was a western called Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. It’s turned out to be a strong contender for my 2010 list of favorite reads.
Butcher’s Crossing is the story of Will Andrews. With his head full of Emersonian ideas about man’s “original relation to nature,” he leaves Harvard before completing his degree and heads west where he hopes to find some sort of work with a distant family friend, Mr. McDonald, in the town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. In the 1870’s, when the novel is set, Butcher’s Crossing is a town built on the buffalo hide boom. Will rejects Mr. McDonald’s offer to join him in a land speculation scheme and soon falls under the wing of experienced buffalo hunter Mr. Miller, who is looking for someone to fund an expedition to find one of the last full size buffalo herds in the Rockies. Andrews agrees to provide the needed funds and becomes one of four expedition members.
By the 1870’s what was wild about the American West was just about gone. There is no mention of Native Americans in Butcher’s Crossing because there are few left on the plains by this point. The railroad is on its way west bringing civilization with it. The smart money says leave trapping and hunting behind, buy land as close to the railroad as possible if you want to get rich. The buffalo are in their final days as well. The hunters have been travelling farther and farther afield only to return with fewer and fewer low quality hides. Miller hopes to find one last herd as big as those he found when he first came to the plains when the herds covered the horizon.
I could argue that all great westerns are set at just this moment in time, when the wild is about to give way to the civilized. The last great cattle drive, the last stand of the native tribes, the end of the gunslinger era. Shane is about a cattle rancher’s attempts to keep farmers out of his valley. True Grit is about a frontiersman’s final days of usefulness. As soon as Americans started moving west, the west was finished. If the Jacksonian ideal of one man standing on his own against the wild and all those around him ever existed, it only existed as a doomed figure, trying to keep the end at bay as long as possible. His days were always numbered. His greatest misfortune was that he would live to see the end.
Butcher’s Crossing exists firmly within this tradition of the wild west’s final days. It’s drowning in it. Miller looking for one last great hunt. McDonald trying to buy up all the land he can for all the profit he can make when the railroad arrives. The impending arrival of the railroad itself. Will Andrew’s desire to experience the wilderness before it’s gone altogether. Experience it he does. In the book’s centerpiece scene, the buffalo hunt, at the exact heart of the novel.
After a while Andrews began to perceive a rhythm in Miller’s slaughter. First, with a deliberate slow movement that was a tightening of the arm muscles, a steadying of his head, and a slow squeeze of his hand, Miller would fire his rifle; then quickly he would eject the still-smoking cartridge and reload; he would study the animal he had shot, and if he saw that it was cleanly hit, his eyes would search among the circling herd for a buffalo that seemed particularly restless; after a few seconds, the wounded animal would stagger and crash to the ground; and then he would shoot again. The whole business seemed to Andrews like a dance, a thunderous minuet created by the wildness that surrounded it.
One man, Miller, kills almost every member of the last great buffalo herd, leaving the hidden Rocky Mountain valley where he found it dotted with skinned corpses, like a hellish landscape by Hieronymus Bosch. Then, like Ernest Hemingway’s Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, Miller must get his ‘catch’ back to town where he can sell it.
Butcher’s Crossing is a classic western. It does not break any molds, nor does it offer an ironic, modern take on the events it describes. There’s even the familiar young man at the side of an older mentor/idol as there is in just about every John Wayne western one can name. While Butcher’s Crossing works completely within the norms of the western genre, it works. That the post hunt journey back to Butcher’s Crossing and the novel’s final scenes play out exactly as readers familiar with Old Man and the Sea would expect does not detract from their emotional impact. In the end, the reader feels the personal loss of the hunter’s broken dreams and the larger loss of a wilderness laid waste for a quick profit and a passing fad.
I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., back in late 2010. Re-reading it today, I have to say that this in one darn good review. The last paragraph is pretty week, but the rest of it sings. There is something to be said about letting yourself go when you love a book. I loved this book. I’m something of a western fan, I even ran a western reading challenge once that earned me the nick-name “Cowboy James” in some parts. Whether your a fan of the genre or not, Butcher’s Crossing is one terrific read.