Stoner

I picked up Stoner after finishing the STown Podcast. The creator, Brian Reed, referenced Stoner as an inspiration for the kind of story telling he wanted to do in his podcast. A fan of how the show turned out, I wanted more of this kind of character, this kind of storytelling.

Stoner did not disappoint. It has something of a reputation as a modern American classic in literary circles. The most famous novel you’ve never heard of, as some call it.

A bleak, sparingly written novel, with nary an extraneous line or plot point, Stoner moves quickly through the protagonist’s life. Every time you feel like you’re going to get deeper into a topic or a character, the novel moves right along. In this way, it is a very Midwestern novel. It has no time to indulge in feelings — at least not for long.

William Stoner knows not the source of his misfortunes, one after another, that add up to his disappointingly average life. He’s mostly thankful for having the kind of life he’s had but it has left him wanting. It’s not that he doesn’t have agency. He is the product of the most American of benefits, the choice to pursue the kind of life you want. And this is Stoner’s best quality. It pin-points the American dream as the opportunity to be who you want, not the guarantee that it will work out.

Unlike many Americans today, Stoner has no delusions about being the hero of his own story. Even at the end, when his life is quickly coming to a close, he can only muster a thank you to his colleagues for letting him teach. He is not interested in being the center of a story, even his own. He has no Twitter or Facebook page on which to create a persona. He lived and died knowing himself.

In reading his story, we, the readers, get the story of an average life. Definitionally, there are more ordinary stories like Stoner’s in the world than extraordinary ones we are often attracted to. Like the STown Podcast, an average story is elevated through great story telling.