Reviews

John Williams’ First Novel ‘Nothing But the Night’ Was an Early Glimpse of Genius

First published in 1948, it foreshadowed the greatness of 'Stoner' and 'Augustus.'

What do we do with the first novels of authors who later prove themselves to be brilliant? And what if that realization doesn’t come until long after their death? Certainly one curse of posthumous success is that false starts, early experiments and practice shots run the risk of getting dredged up and packaged nicely with a new introduction, or in the case of John Williams’ inconsistent Nothing but the Night, an interview with the author’s widow.

Williams died in 1992 relatively unknown, but has become famous over the past decade since the revival of his 1965 campus novel Stoner. It’s reportedly sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and spawned almost as many fawning appreciations; a Williams biography published last year is titled The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life.

And while Stoner is well deserving of the praise and acclaim, perhaps the best side effect of its success has been a new appreciation of Williams’ other work, notably the 1960 western Butcher’s Crossing and 1972’s Augustus, an epistolary historical novel which won the National Book Award. Together, the trio has proved Williams to be a masterful blender of genre fiction and literary consciousness, an essential American writer who almost went forgotten.

And then there’s Nothing but the Night. First published in 1948 and written a few years before, the novel has received little attention, and Williams would eventually distance himself from it. But now, over a decade into the author’s revival, the book is being republished this month by NYRB Classics.

One clear value of reading Nothing but the Night is the same as reading any great writer’s early work: there’s a pleasure in noticing bits and pieces of the nascent style and ideas they’d eventually hone. There’s certainly a lot here for Williams super fans: brief clips of lush description overlap with the protagonist’s battle with solitude and stagnation, a trope of the writer’s mature work. And while it’s hard to imagine the book standing on its own, without the reputation of Stoner, there are many moments of compelling existential reckoning buoyed by good writing.

Nothing but the Night follows one day in the life of 24-year-old Arthur Maxley, who’s living alone in an anonymous city after dropping out of college. Arthur doesn’t do much, and moves less through the city than through dream and memory and intoxication.

“Gathering at the edges of his consciousness, the image assumed shape and form, as a mass of clouds gather and twist in a clear sky…” begins an early chapter, after Arthur has gotten drunk in the middle of the morning. What’s gathering is a picture of his mother, whose memory Arthur has painstakingly tried to squash. These episodes of repression and ultimate submittal become the novel’s strongest, when Arthur’s grip on an already tenuous reality loosens and he finds himself mired in a hazy childhood memory, or a disembodied dream.

As the novel progresses, Arthur is jolted into either anxious fear or tranquil nostalgia by the slightest glance or projection: a sunny side up egg that looks like an unblinking eye, the sound of his father’s voice over the telephone, a trace of his mother’s face in a nightclub performer. These scenes become a testament to the power of memory, how it can liberate but also tranquilize. How there’s no escape, just temporary salves that are all too fleeting.

Underneath the psychological torment, there are also long stretches in Nothing but the Night where Arthur proves to be a burdensome and miserable companion. Early in the novel, he reacts bitterly to the presence of a gay acquaintance: “He could feel no sympathy for the sort of person Stafford was. Stafford’s particular perversion constantly repelled him, and there were times when he felt active dislike, even spite, for him.”

It’s callous scenes like these that differentiate Nothing but the Night from what Williams would accomplish in the 60s and 70s. They’re too removed from Arthur’s torment, and become a distraction from the central conflict of the novel: the painful resurgence of his family’s past.

Still, the triggering of repressed childhood traumas becomes an organic foundation for much of Arthur’s misery and confusion, as it also does for the novels that would eventually, posthumously, make Williams famous. For these moments, and the chance to trace their path through the quiet existential battles of Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner, and Augustus, Nothing but the Night establishes itself as a worthy addition to the Williams oeuvre.  

FICTION
Nothing but the Night
John Williams
NYRB Classics
February 12, 2019

John Williams was an American author, editor and professor. He was best known for his novels Butcher’s Crossing (1960), Stoner (1965), and Augustus (1972). Nothing but the Night, originally published in 1948, was reprinted this year by NYRB Classics.

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