Thursday, September 18, 2008

Butcher's Crossing

Reading John Williams's 1960 Western Butcher's Crossing while Rome—well, Wall Street—burnt was perfect timing.

The book tells the story of young Will Andrews who drops out of Harvard College in the 1870s and goes west to find himself. Under the guidance of man named Miller, he ends up funding a hunting trip to a quasi-mythical Colorado valley, high in the Rockies, where, Miller says, thousands of buffalo roam. The plan is to spend a couple of weeks, kill as many beasts as possible during that time, bring the hides back on a wagon and sells them in the small town of Butcher's Crossing, from where they departed.

They find the valley all right, but Miller gets obsessed with the slaughter and refuses to leave until he's killed every animal—and there's thousands of them. Alas, when he awakes from his bloody reverie, the weather has turned and the four men in the party are snowed in; they spend several months under a makeshift shelter made of hides. After they emerge in the spring, filthy, weak from hunger and the cold, and with one of them pretty much insane, things actually get worse! The trip back turns into a nightmare and Butcher's Crossing itself has changed in ways our Rip van Winkles were not expecting. The ironic twist Williams springs at the end is to deliciously grim to reveal.

Williams doesn't pull punches (I learned more than I ever wanted to know about how to kill, skin and dress a buffalo) but his grim poetry is absolutely mesmerizing. And it's hard to find a better description of a man driven by greed—not so much financial, though Miller certainly wants dollars for his hides, but the elemental need to satisfy a constant craving for more, more and more, even after you have more than enough. Add to this man's destruction of of nature in his quest to control it, and you get a dizzying allegory of a society gone mad.

Indeed, how not to be chilled by the parallel with our barons of finance, who kept wanting more and more and more, and would do anything to get it? As with Miller, who kills buffalo for the same reason too many idiots climb the Everest—because it's there—we now have to deal with the insanity created by morons who got drunk on their own financial wizardry and couldn't stop themselves.

The only good news in this: Williams has only written three novels, making it easy to read his entire oeuvre.


David Seaton's Newslinks said...

This is very good. Perfect metaphor.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

And the end, which I didn't reveal, completes the analogy with our sorry situation.


When the hunting party finally returns to Butcher's Crossing, it learns that while they were gone, the market for hides has completely collapsed. They're left with thousands of useless pelts.