An Unremarkable Man: Shaun Randol on John Williams’s Stoner

Stoner, John Williams, NYRB, 2006 (1965)

John Williams’ Stoner is the story of the academic’s worst nightmare. One should suspect as much, though, for on the very first page the author sketches the life of one William Stoner, a professor of literature at the University of Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. Despite 38 years of teaching, Stoner never rose above the rank of assistant professor. He was, apparently, an unremarkable man—few students could recall him, even after they had just taken his class.
Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their career.
Not exactly the way an academic wants to be remembered. While I am no professor, I do fancy myself a bit of a thinker, and occasionally fantasize about the life of a college instructor. Stoner had all the trappings of a wet dream: a poor, Missouri farmer finds his true calling and a love of literature at the university, is offered a professorship and tenure shortly after graduation, and marries a smart, beautiful woman with whom he has a smart, precocious daughter. A life of research, teaching, mentoring, and publishing lived alternatively in an ivory tower or behind a white picket fence stretches before him. Ah, the life! Add to the mix the allure of a young, sexy, sharp-as-a-tack student—naturally—and you have the makings of every thinking man’s fantasy.
Yet life was not so rosy for Stoner. One can argue that, all things considered, Stoner did alright for himself. In fact, as far as the destinies of destitute, Dust Bowl-era farmers are concerned, he did exceedingly well. Nevertheless, Stoner ends up living a life of intellectual stagnation, marital ineptitude, bitter loneliness, and professorial obscurity, never to rise above the level of mediocrity in all realms of life. Oh, the horror!

Stoner may be a melancholic read, but it is not dull. This elegant novel is a fine, intimate portrait of a man with terrific—but never realized—potential. His life at the university begins with much promise, but that time, unfortunately, is nearly the peak of the intellect’s career. His marriage to a woman who never truly loved him quickly dissolves into an emotional prison-state, and nearly almost spirals into a War of the Roses-type battle for psychological supremacy. More disheartening are the machinations of the Chair of the literary department in which Stoner resides who conspires to keep Stoner at the level of a lowly, associate professor, even while younger professors slowly climb the ranks. Stoner takes all of his lumps with a resigned dignity, but he closes in on himself until he becomes the sole constituent of his world:

Stoner had to admit that he had become, in the regard of the young instructors and the older students, who seemed to come and go before he could firmly attach names to their faces, an almost mythic figure, however shifting and various the function of that figure was.

And as the years pass by, his classroom behavior becomes more eccentric, more erratic, more absent, and, in front of his students, more intense,

He began his lectures and discussions fumblingly and awkwardly, yet very quickly became so immersed in his subject that he seemed unaware of anything or anyone around him.

We know from the very beginning that the end of the novel brings death to the protagonist—a somber pall drapes every page. It is Williams’ ability to paint such precise, brutally honest portraits of the characters, however, that keeps one reading. The characters are so real they seem to come alive on the page. We know that things cannot end well, but the appeal remains in finding out how the individuals, namely Stoner, cope with the sad circumstances of their lives. Every character is a sad sack, incapable of overcoming their stifling mediocrity. Stoner’s life and death is emblematic of the academic’s worst nightmare: great potential never realized.


Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle , an Associate Fellow at World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Curtain Call: Shaun Randol on Tim Brown’s Second Acts

Second Acts, Tim W. Brown, Gival Press, 2010

“There are no second acts in American lives,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tim W. Brown’s highly engaging, informative, and often humorous story claims otherwise. Second Acts, Brown’s fourth novel, follows Dan Connor, a man on a time-traveling mission to win back his adulteress wife, Rachel. In 1833 America, Connor and his newfound partner, Bunny, a transvestite Potawatomi Indian, negotiate the bustling sites of Chicago, Buffalo, and New York on the trail of his cheating wife and Bruce, her eminent, scientific co-conspirator. At first blush, Second Acts could be mistaken for an amalgam of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and anything by Jules Verne. The assumption is not unfounded, but Brown’s imagining of a time-traveling romance peppered with comedy and glazed in historical details stands on its own merits.

Second Acts leaps out of the starting gate so quickly that the reader must accept the story as given. There is no time to ask questions that might bog down the action. For instance, when Connor jumps into his time machine, he is careful to bring along the currency of 1833 (gold coins), but we are left to wonder: was he also wearing a pair of Nikes? Or was Connor also careful enough to strap on some period boots? Because Brown refuses to slow down the story by carefully addressing the minutiae of time travel logic, Second Acts easily and quickly slides into the realms of fantasy, science fiction, and escapism. In other words, we are free to enjoy the ride.

Not everything in Brown’s tale can be easily forgiven, however. A glaring oversight of the novel is that from cover to cover it remains unclear for whom or what the narrator is writing. Second Acts is told in first person, as if Connor is recalling the story of his time travels fireside, or is conveying his thoughts in a diary for some historical record. Clearly the tale is meant for Connor’s mid-19th century contemporaries, for throughout the story anachronistic references are explained parenthetically. For example, recalling a moment in 2015 (from whence the story begins), the narrator speaks of “heating foods in the microwave oven (a miraculous invention that cooks meals in mere seconds without fire).” Or late in the novel, a hair permanent is described as “a hairdresser’s technique used in the modern world to curl hair chemically.” For whose benefit are these references made? In The Time Machine, it is clear that the narrator recounts his time travels to dinner guests, and in A Connecticut Yankee, the story is first told to the narrator by a stranger (before turning into a first-person recollection). Brown’s narrative device remains unexplained.

Further, there is a lack of the “wow factor” one might expect of time travelers, or “time pilots” as they are called in the book. In both Connor’s recounting and in Rachel’s diary (through which we are able to follow her journey) there is an apparent lack of fascination with a) the act of time travel itself, and b) how people actually live in 1833, compared to our own expectations. Admissions along the lines of “I can’t believe they actually do/wear/believe this, when our history books teach us Americans of the 1830s do/wear/believe that” are minimal, to say the least. Instead, Rachel and Connor seem to accept their circumstances with a shrug, as if they went out for milk one day and were taken on an unexpected, but not out of the ordinary, detour.
Despite these shortcomings, Second Acts remains an engrossing read. Brown’s research really shines through in the many pockets where details are richly brought to life. While Brown glances over the specifics of Chicago 1833, the year of its founding, Buffalo and New York City are colorfully depicted. As to the latter:

Next, I turned my attention to the surrounding neighborhood, the city’s main commercial district straddling Broadway. I walked past dressmakers’ shops, food emporiums, furniture makers’ workshops, and sundry other stores that sold every imaginable trinket and gewgaw. In their display windows I saw stylishly dressed mannequins, skinned rabbits and sausages hanging from strings, cherry-wood cabinets emblazoned with flags and eagles, silk scarves and stockings, gold rings and pocket watches, silver and tin cutlery, china plates and crystal goblets, linens for bed and table, wooden animal pull toys, pipes and cigars, spectacles, and, everywhere, false teeth carved from wood or ivory.

With such vivid description, the reader can’t help but feel transported to another time. Genuine historical figures, too, like once-presidential candidate Samuel Tilden and New York University founder Albert E. Gallatin, make their appearances.

The punctuation of historical personages and events in Second Acts becomes a game for the reader: was there really an annual pig hunt in Central Park in the mid-19th century? Is Bunny based on an actual, historical person? Did a small, upstate New York town actually burn down in the 1830s? Time and again I found myself taking notes in order to conduct queries on these references. And in an especially inspired twist, one of the novels historical figures also turns out also to be a “time pilot.” Brown smartly introduces this fanciful turn by forcing the reader to simply accept the fact, rather than bog down the action with a possibly circular—albeit fascinating—discussion on the implications of multiple time pilots existing and acting in history simultaneously toward different ends. What effect would this possibility have on history? On the future? On the re-telling of history in the future? What scientific, philosophical, moral, and ethical wrinkles would such a possibility introduce? There’s no time to get into it—a romantic chase is afoot! The story moves along. Such are the treats of the seamless weaving of historical encounters through the plot that make this story an easy and tasty pill to swallow. Second Acts will be a hard one for Brown to follow.


Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle (, an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He has written critical essays on film, literature, and international affairs for numerous online and print publications.  If you are interested, a selection of work can be found here: and some older stuff here: