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Bookish | Matthew Gilbert

John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ finds a second life

“Stoner” is the Stuart Little of novels, a small, valiant fellow who has taken a long, eccentric, and triumphant journey through the big human world.

Written in 1965 by John Williams, “Stoner” — which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with weed or Pineapple Express — quickly fell into obscurity. About the son of a Missouri farming family who falls in love with literature and becomes a professor, the novel sold a measly 2,000 copies for Viking before going to that shelf in the sky where ignored books find eternal rest.

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The book came out in the era of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” and Williams’s austere prose style and his drab subject matter — the uncharmed life of an ordinary man named William Stoner — failed to click with readers.

And then “Stoner” had an amazing resurrection: Cut to 2006, when New York Review Books, a publisher whose Classics series digs up underappreciated gems, rereleased the novel. Of the many books NYRB blesses with a second chance, “Stoner” began to gain especially serious traction. A rave review arrived in The New York Times, and high profile fans such as Colum McCann began to sing its praises.

Strangely enough, even Tom Hanks had kind words for “Stoner,” giving it a shout-out in a 2010 Time magazine feature: “It’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across,” he said.

Cut to now: The loud celebration of Williams’s novel has gradually spread to other countries, and “Stoner” has become an international bestseller. This month, it was named Waterstones Book of the Year, against a shortlist that included Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and Julian Barnes’s “Levels of Life.” Williams’s decades-old novel has also become a sensation in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Israel, in part thanks to a 2011 French translation by popular French author Anna Gavalda.

The most recent sales boost: an impassioned endorsement in July on British TV by Ian McEwan, who called it “extraordinary” and said its prose is “as limpid as glass.”

Meanwhile, in the States, “Stoner” continues to sell, 100,000 copies so far, according to NYRB editor Edwin Frank. It is NYRB’s bestselling book, even though the publisher does not hold the foreign rights.

Frank calls the international success a “wonderful mania.” Why has this unassuming novel evoked such excitement in other countries? “It has a kind of Edward Hopper starkness and an American loneliness that has an odd universal appeal,” he says. “It shows a sympathetic side of America, that America, too, has a certain existential exposure, rather than being a lot of people who are buying washing machines.”

It hasn’t hurt, either, that “Stoner” doesn’t feel like it comes out of the 1960s. Williams’s style has a pure, timeless quality that doesn’t link it to any particular literary fashion or make it feel dated. The novel’s directness transcends cultural lines; its meanings are as available in other countries as they are here.

The sad part of the story, of course, is that Williams, a University of Denver professor who died in 1994 at 71, missed out on the fuss. During his life he’d finished four novels, the last of which, an epistolary portrait of the Roman Empire called “Augustus,” shared a National Book Award with John Barth’s more postmodern “Chimera.” But he never saw his reputation and his work extend outside of the small “writer’s writer” slot.

But for new readers of “Stoner,” the unexpected revival of the novel is a completely happy story, a lovely gift. In concise, unadorned language, Williams writes about a man whose love of literature sustains him through the years of a bad marriage, a doomed affair, the estrangement of his daughter, and professional failures.

The book begins boldly with a mention of Stoner’s death, and a nod to his profound averageness: “Few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” By the end, though, Williams has made Stoner’s disappointing life into such a deep and honest portrait, so unsoftened and unromanticized, that it’s quietly breathtaking.

“Stoner” speaks to the reader’s “integrity in unsuccess,” as Frank so aptly puts it.

The revival of “Stoner” is also a sweet development for lovers of old classics. It’s a symbol of hope against the randomness of popularity and the wash of time. We’re always searching for more great books, once we’ve exhausted works by those more easily found quantities such as Faulkner, Austen, Wharton, Maugham, James, and so on.

Sometimes, the scavenger hunt is easy. In used bookstores — some, like Brookline Booksmith’s, in the basement below the new books — I’ve stumbled across George Moore’s little-known 1894 beauty “Esther Waters,” George Gissing’s perfect “Will Warburton” from 1905, and Theodore Dreiser’s superb 1911 novel “Jennie Gerhardt.” And I recall accidentally finding the gold mine that is Arnold Bennett, whose novels include the brilliant “The Old Wives’ Tale” and “The Card.”

Other times, the search is dusty and futile, and we can only sit back and wait, hoping another “Stoner” will find new life.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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