One of the most common answers people give when they are asked what they did last night, over the weekend or even on their holidays is of course: “nothing;” and while recipients of such an answer usually accept it without any attempt to pry for further information, there is nonetheless an unspoken acknowledgment that the response they have received is not entirely truthful. Even people who say they do nothing do something. Unless they literally wake up in the morning and lie motionless counting the hours until they fall asleep again. William Stoner, the character whose surname gives John Williams’ 1965 novel its title, is a man who proves through drama surrounding the intricacies of his seemingly unremarkable life. He leaves home for The University of Missouri, stays there to become a teacher, marries and lives what most would describe as a quiet life.
He is not a hero, he is not villain, nor is he a genius, but a merely competent, good-natured man who goes about his life with little pretence. As biographical candidates go, he certainly doesn’t make the A-list and he probably wouldn’t make the B-list either. Yet when Williams puts Stoner’s life story down on paper, it is undeniably fascinating from the get-go. Why? Because most people are not celebrities, movie stars or musicians. Most of us, leave home, find our work, do the best we can for ourselves and our families, hit bumps in the road along the way and through it all, try and find solace in the simple pleasures life grants us free of charge.
Throughout his life, Stoner revels in these handouts of peaceful simplicity more than most, with perhaps the best example of this coming when his then-toddler of a daughter, Grace, watches him quietly as he works on a book in his study after his teaching hours. As she grows, Stoner frequently recalls this time that to the untrained eye, would have barely seemed noteworthy, with a wistfulness befitting of an event much more monumental.
But that is Stoner’s greatest strength: tapping into the sentimentality and powerful emotions that human beings connect to the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential things. Through its glorification of the small but beautiful through the eyes of a man with uncomplicated but decent intentions, Williams tells a story that is intensely relatable that proves there is beauty, triumph and tragedy in every human life. Even the ones of those who often tell us they do “nothing.”
Rating: 4.5/5 Beautiful, sad but undeniably brilliant.