Williams, Thomas 1926–
Although his books are varied in plot and setting, throughout Williams's fiction runs his central themes of the responsibility of man to nature and the greater responsibility of man, and especially of the artist, to other humans. The Hair of Harold Roux, which is distinguished by its artful use of the novel within a novel device, won the 1976 National Book Award for fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
["Town Burning"] gives new life to an old theme: the native's return, and reinforces [Thomas Williams's] unusual status as an elegist of small-town America….
With a perspective that is both dour and sympathetic, Mr. Williams sketches [protagonist] Cotter's circle of friends and enemies…. The centerpiece of the novel is its protagonist's precarious relationship with his mother, father and brother, a beautifully stated arrangement of inhibited love and subtly shaded hostility. A forest fire simplifies these compacts and acts as a crucible for new alignments. Symbolically, the novel begins and ends in a graveyard, which frames the novelist's regard for all there is in life.
Martin Levin, "Reader's Report," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 29, 1970, p. 25.
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R. V. Cassill
In periods of social equilibrium it may suffice the artist to be the "antenna of the race," as Pound called those who register the substance and force of realities ignored by the complacent sensibility. Now, in the fissioning of legal, political, moral, academic and semantic anarchy the artist—specifically the novelist—becomes by default also the conservator of the self-destructing community in which he finds himself. This is Williams's implied theme. It is the principle on which he has constructed a credible hero—the last truly responsible man.
Aaron Benham the novelist sits, in the beginning, among his own written contributions to the blithering universe exploding away from his study. Even in his own room the "one firm label in this area seems to be 'miscellaneous.'" Responsibility begins with the recognition that his finished books and stories have become fragments of the general chaos on the instant of their completion. The order, meaning and celebration to which he is committed as a writer lie in the work to be done, in fictionalizing the dreams and circumstances of his middle age….
Benham is also a fully married man. His novel in hand is a commitment to reconciling his present marriage with the pathos of the college love affair he is writing about. So he must fictionalize the sacrifice of "Mary Tolliver" to balance his moral and emotional accounts with the living mother of his children. And since Mary is...
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[Since The Hair of Harold Roux] is about an academic in an ivory tower who is also a would-be novelist with writer's block, I ought to have found it the dreariest novel I had ever read. But I didn't. It is full of surprises. Aaron Benham, professor of English, married and moderately successful, has reached the run-in to middle age, and finds his life sterile. His escapes are tonning around on his Honda and remembering his youth, about which he plans a novel. He has the title—'The Hair of Harold Roux'—but cannot find the words.
And so he simply dreams about it…. Why are [his] memories so crucial? Well, because he had potential: with its beckoning future, so much cosier than exposed maturity! But potential to do what? Even in his youth, there is an essential hollowness about Aaron. And here is the novel's flaw. Unlike … [other novels] which set this syndrome against a larger world outside, Thomas Williams's novel proves to be private, esoteric and hypochondriac, after all. (p. 350)
Robert Buckler, "Anguished Americans," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Robert Buckler), Vol. 94, No. 2423, September 11, 1975, pp. 349-50.∗
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Williams has always been more a preacher and entertainer than a serious novelist. If he deals with weighty matters, he does not deal with them weightily: He goes for Hollywood images, Hollywood sentiments and Hollywood's notion of "serious thought." I don't mind such things in novels for adults, though I don't exactly love them. In novels for children, sentimentality and preaching make me cross. "Tsuga's Children" is both: The publisher calls it a novel that "will be read with enchantment by adults and young people alike." (p. 13)
[The] language, emotions and surprising heroics recall Bomba, Boy of the Jungle, Raggedy Ann and the Hardy boys. The good, of course, are very very good, as mushy language insists….
The bad, on the other hand, are outrageously bad, though as in all schlock children's fiction they can be converted from bad to good, if the author feels like it, just like that. And as in all deeply sentimental pseudo-art (as Jung pointed out), mindless, gooey sweetness comes hand in hand with sadism….
Williams's themes, the oneness of all Nature and human responsibility here on this planet, are themes as noble as the mind can think up. But however it's disguised—as drama for adults or as drama for children—melodramatic, mushy writing is an offense against the spirit. In several mildly hysterical passages, Williams makes children the hope of the world. I agree, up to a point, that...
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Tsuga's Children begins: "Once there was a family named Hemlock who lived, in another time, near the base of Cascom Mountain …". Into the Hemlock family's timeless environs—the distilled setting for Thomas Williams's allegorical tale—comes an ancient, dark personage who does not use her tongue to speak or her eyes to see. She moves into the Hemlocks' humble home and lures the children, Arn and Jen, to the valley of a dark mountain inhabited by an immortal race called Old People. There they become spiritual children of the legendary Tsuga…. Through initiation and trial by fire, Arn and Jen attain ultimate knowledge of that which is beyond the utterable and the visually verifiable.
Surely the universality of such a theme and the simplicity of the storytelling should not offend one. Yet this reader was put off by the author's indulging himself in lofty themes that students of literature fondly embrace as mirror evidence of their own superior sensibilities and noble natures. The same preciousness is found in Williams's prior novel, The Hair of Harry Roux…. Both Roux and Tsuga are bathed in self-congratulatory virtue. While in Tsuga the implication of myth is manifestly present, it cannot work its intended spell, for magic and wonder do not illuminate or attend it.
Linda Kuehl, "Books in Brief: 'Tsuga's Children'," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by...
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Thomas Williams is the kind of novelist you keep calling "a young writer." He won a National Book Award for "The Hair of Harold Roux," and "Town Burning" and "Whipple's Castle" added to his reputation. Then you realize he's 52 years old, a distinguished college professor publishing his eighth book, and well on his way to being "remembered."
Most authors have to die, or stop writing, to make that grade. But every so often a novelist comes along who can win immortality with one foot still planted in the day-to-day world. Williams is trying to do that now, and with "The Followed Man" he comes closer to success than most other popular writers with such high literary hopes….
In this book, people with good stories to tell are allowed to tell them, and Thomas Williams keeps it all under firm control. His novel is written out of the accumulated wisdom of a modern lit professor, and occasionally he risks showing off how much Frost, Faulkner, Cheever and Updike he knows. But Williams also knows when to stand back and let life play itself out and form its own rules.
The book's only totally hopeless character is, appropriately, an English prof who hasn't learned this lesson. A writer himself, this poor soul is utterly forgettable. But Thomas Williams deserves to be remembered, while being blessed with many years to write more novels as good as this one.
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The Followed Man is Williams' best novel, strong, beautiful, and harrowing…. [It] contains less distraction from Williams' harsh vision of things. Williams seems to have grown into acceptance of his vision, and to acknowledge it for the first time. On the one hand he continues to describe a natural world of great beauty—especially rural New England, outdoors, with its associated virtues of self-reliance, durability, and fortitude. But Thomas Williams is not making novels that resemble calendar New England, for on the other hand the strongest emotions in his novels—The Followed Man in particular—are human pain and guilt. (p. 107)
The plot … may seem as arbitrary as life itself, tilted entirely to the side of blackness. But that is not all that there is in this novel. Through everything, Carr maintains his decency, as we see him struggle to make square corners, solid walls, and a roof with the right pitch—invoking order and sanity by carpentering, much as Hemingway's fisher man fights madness by meticulous fishing. Carr is a hero in his resolute will to endure, even if endurance necessitates removal and solitude. The society he removes himself from is depraved—the society that follows him, even in the country. He struggles to avoid the guilt of complicity. (pp. 108-09)
Donald Hall, "The Best Unknown," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East...
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