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John Williams


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Butcher’s Crossing” by John Williams

October 30, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.18.04 PMDedicated fans of John Williams’ novels “Augustus,” (1972, reviewed here), and “Stoner,” (when the book was published, in 1965, the word stoner had not taken on its present-day connotations) should by all means read his earlier novel “Butcher’s Crossing,” first published in 1960 and now available, like the others, from NYRB. “Butcher’s Crossing” tells the story of Will Andrews, the Boston-born son of a minister, who in 1873 has left Harvard after three years and made his way, by coach and rail, to the town of Butcher’s Crossing, somewhere north of St. Louis and a jumping-off point for hunters and others heading west. With the opening of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 railroads were spreading across the country, but huge unsettled spaces and large herds of buffalo remained. Andrews has some capital, and he’s intent on fulfilling a vision of wildness Williams describes as:

. . . a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source, rather than search it out, as the prairie grass around him sent down its fibered roots into the rich dark dampness, the Wildness, and thereby renewed itself, year after year.

Andrews invests a chunk of his capital in preparations for a buffalo hunt, trusting the patter of a Mr. Miller, who has seen great herds of buffalo in a remote mountain valley. Andrews joins the expedition, and Miller brings along Charley Hoge, who is missing a hand, as cook and drover, and Fred Schneider, an expert skinner. Andrews keeps following Miller’s decisions, though even he knows they’re questionable: to head directly west rather over the prairie rather than stick with known routes along rivers. To massacre an entire herd of buffalo for their skins, leaving the meat but nothing else, not even survivors to repopulate the herd. To stay in the mountains even as winter closes in.

Fortunately Miller, Schneider, and Andrews himself are strong and resourceful, and they survive the ensuing disasters. Their trials only multiply when they emerge from the mountains: the world has moved on, not caring about their travails. The pace of the narrative is very slow, as Williams describes their long trip in exquisite and disturbing detail, but the concentration and work required of the attentive reader is more than repaid in vivid descriptions and thought-provoking scenarios. The book anticipates many of the issues we’re struggling with today, including environmental, habitat, and species destruction and the impact shifts in economic trends have on every participant in every interconnected marketplace. Will Andrews’ reflections at the end of the story bring to mind Nick Carraway’s, and this reader found “Butcher’s Crossing” to be a worthy and remarkable bookend to “The Great Gatsby” in its depiction of the cost of the American experiment.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Augustus” by John Williams

February 6, 2015

Gaius Octavius Caesar Augustus, heir of Julius and the first Roman emperor, is the fascinating center of John Williams’ novel “Augustus,” winner of the 1973 National Book Award and available in an NYRB paperback edition, with an introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn. The book is an epistolary novel, a form that wasn’t invented for a millennium and a half after the lives of Augustus, his family, friends, fellow soldiers, and many enemies. Yet Williams renders his characters so fully that the reader believes their versions of events and the stories they have to tell.

Even emperors must be adept at politics, and Augustus was better than most. He outmaneuvered the wily Marc Antony before eventually defeating him at Actium. He made himself into Caesar’s heir and then expanded both the role – into Emperor – and the empire. The novel explores the politics, the factions, and the betrayals from the point of view of the various protagonists; it includes letters from Cicero, Livy, Cleopatra, the journals of Augustus’ daughter Julia, and the memoirs of various participants, including Agrippa. Williams starts with the known history, then arranges voyages, parties, and some events in order to shape his story. (Williams explains in a note that “With a few exceptions, the documents that constitute this novel are of my own invention . . . if there are truths in this work, they are the truths of fiction rather than of history.”)

Augustus’ story is a compelling one. He was a great-nephew of Julius Caesar, who adopted the boy, then known as Octavius, shortly before Caesar’s murder in the Roman Senate. The first letter, from Julius Caesar to Atia, Octavius’ mother, sets the stage, placing Octavius and three friends in Greece, where they are studying and training with a Roman Legion, at the time of the murder. The three friends, Marcus Agrippa, Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, and Silvidienus Rufus became Augustus’ advisors and his generals. When it was convenient, Marcus Agrippa was, for a while, Augustus’ son-in-law. It was a happy marriage that lasted until Agrippa’s death. But Augustus later forced his daughter Julia to marry again, in order to secure Tiberius’ succession.

The personal costs of Augustus’ ambition are evident on nearly every page. He must cut himself off from love and from true partnership, and settle for companions. For the most part, his companions, particularly those from his youth, proved loyal. When one of them – Silvidienus – mis-times the turning of his coat and is caught offering loyalty to Marc Antony, Augustus is ruthless. Augustus’ single-mindedness allows him to disregard even the emotions of his daughter Julia. Williams’ Augustus loves his daughter as much as he loves anyone. This love doesn’t stop him from using her.

Julia watches her father at the public rituals surrounding Agrippa’s funeral, and we see his pain and his stoniness through her eyes: Augustus, she says, “spoke before the body of Marcus Agrippa as if it were a monument, rather than what remained of a friend.” She also recognises his pain. Julia understands why he forces a third marriage, to Tiberius, on her, but the marriage is too much for her. What happens between Julia and Augusts takes up much of the final third of the book, and is as compelling as the military and political exploits of the earlier half.

It’s an extraordinary book that should have a much wider readership. Let us know your thoughts about what if anything our politicians can learn from Augustus in the comments.

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Health, News

SUNY Sustainability Plan: Sell or Close LICH

May 30, 2013

SUNY has released its Sustainability Plan, which focuses on preserving its teaching function at University Hospital of Brooklyn while seeking to share or transfer health care responsibilities with or to other Brooklyn hospitals and clinics and to home health care, according to The Wall Street Journal:

The proposal doesn’t guarantee that LICH will remain open, although SUNY officials and a nurses union representative said potential operators had stepped up to take over the struggling Cobble Hill institution. A Wall Street Journal analysis of the plan estimates SUNY would need to spend nearly $130 million for the LICH transfer.

NY1 quotes SUNY Downstate President John Williams as saying they are “talking to…five institutions” that may have an interest in taking over management of LICH. According to an analysis of the Sustainability Plan prepared by the Cobble Hill Association, the first mention of LICH in the Plan occurs in a footnote that says:

SUNY will review all responses received to the request for information and determine the most expeditious and financially responsible course of action to enable Downstate to exit from the operation of the Long Island College Hospital facility.

The Plan must be reviewed by the State Department of Health, which may approve it or send it back for revision.

Update: Homer’s cousin/former Cobble Hill Ass’n prexy Jeff Strabone analyzes the plan here:

Breakdown of the Sustainability Plan

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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