John Williams' Stoner is as good as everyone says. If you don't have the type of friends who are talking about a reissued 1965 novel set at a Midwest university, get new friends.
Let's start here: in the early part of the novel, Stoner is in a doctoral program at the same school where he took his bachelor's and master's degrees in literature. He left the farm where his parents still scrape by after their son disappointed them in not returning home with an agriculture degree that would help them modernize and thrive.
For the first time in Stoner's life he has friends, two other men in his program, but World War I looms and they discuss what the conflict will mean for them, whether they'll enlist, and why their lives have taken shape around academe.
One friend assesses another:
But you're bright enough--and just bright enough--to realize what would happen to you in the world. You're cut out for failure, and you know it. Though you're capable of being a son-of-a-bitch, you're not quite ruthless enough to be so consistently. Though you're not precisely the most honest man I've ever met, neither are you heroically dishonest. One the one hand, you're capable of work, but you're just lazy enough so that you can't work as hard as the world would want you to. On the other hand, you're not quite so lazy that you can impress upon the world a sense of your own importance.
Williams' sentences are sharp and precise as cut glass, and his characterizations, from farm boys to elderly professors, ring true a half century after he wrote them. The novel feels very American, triumphantly American even--from the state college rising up from dusty fields to Stoner's parents, who want him to go to college because they heard it might be good for him, to his wife, who reminds him that their marriage put off her only chance at trip to Europe where, you get the sense, she might have quivered at an aspic and taken to her bed.
There's a bigness to the novel, surprising because it's relatively slight and takes place on a small set. At any juncture, when I asked myself "Will this work out for Stoner?" and the answer clearly, always, and as sure as a drumbeat, was no, I kept reading anyhow, because such was the power of the book and the writer.
It's also a book that reels in onlookers, apparently. Someone sat next to me on the bus just to ask if I liked it (he'd heard a review on NPR). The other night as I raced to the conclusion while picking at San Francisco's finest burger and fry combo at nopa, an onlooker tapped my shoulder, and while I prepared for an unreasonable french fry request by invoking this evergreen clip, she only wanted a photo of the book cover. Done.