Don't read Joy Williams if you're looking for Oprah-style stories of redemption--stories in which the human spirit triumphs. And don't look to her for a mirror of reality; with this author, there's never the sense that "I've been there" or "I identify." Williams creates novels and stories that operate under a tightly wound surrealist aesthetic. She distorts the world, but her distortions are subtle enough that you don't see them coming. You can't predict when the logic of dream will take over the logic of the text. Like the filmmaker David Lynch, Williams sees pathology and the ominous everywhere; she renders a world that looks familiar but is slightly off. Like Don DeLillo, she's a sprawling, ambitious writer whose characters often talk in a lovely, unbelievable poetry, as if they were prophets, or preachers, or ghosts.
The Quick and the Dead, Williams's fourth novel, follows a series of linked stories, all taking place in Arizona. Indeed, it could be called a desert epic, so dependent is its narrative momentum on the desert's eventual consumption of its inhabitants. These characters are consumed by thirst and mirages, by dry dreams of a lifeless landscape. They reside in a state of spiritual flatness and emptiness.
At the heart of the book, three motherless teenage girls befriend each other, go on camping trips, lay out in the sun by the rich girl's pool. Corvus, Alice, and Annabel are, respectively, spooky, apocalyptic, and prom-queen vain. In the course of things, they encounter, among others, a gay piano player named Sherwin who lives in a smelly apartment and constantly wears a tux, and a retirement-home nurse who entertains her patients with one-liners like: "Thoughts are infusorial" and "The set trap never tires of waiting." Perhaps most memorable is a cowboy-hatted stroke victim called Ray who believes a monkey lives in the back of his brain. Ray hitchhikes and steals credit cards. When he hasn't eaten for a while, the animal takes over: "The little monkey was climbing the walls in his head, making clear that it wanted out. Any avenue along the capillaries would do. There was an awful craving to get out. Ray didn't feel well."
Other lively phenomena interrupting the prevailing desert stillness: an injured deer leaping over a fence into a swimming pool in the middle of a party; a man shot in the desert by a couple of stoned guys shooting at cacti; a reappearing ghost called Ginger (Annabel's mother) who arrives every night to rail at her alcoholic widower husband, berating his clothes and his investment strategies.
In the hands of a lesser artist these various, often forcefully bizarre characters and events could have seemed like the work of someone out to impress with her weirdness. But Williams is the real thing, and The Quick and the Dead is her visionary world--a place so unmistakably doomed, it literally gives you the chills. --Emily White
From Publishers Weekly
"This was no place to be tonight for any of them, but this was the place they were." Set in the Texas desert, the first new fiction in 10 years from the much-praised Williams (States of Grace) examines the thoughts and hopes of three motherless 16-year-old girls, exploring their connections to one another, to a large cast of difficult adults and to the ghosts that populate their lives. Williams's first chapters introduce her three protagonistsAbeautiful, grief-stricken Corvus; zealous Alice, always looking for "something that would give her a little edge or obscure the edge she already had, she didn't know which"; and Annabel, whose preoccupations with skincare and sweaters seems practical by comparison. Around this trio, other characters form a web of dependence, trust and mistrustAa web repeatedly broken by sudden violence. Annabel's father, Carter, lusts after his young Buddhist gardener, but carries on drunken, hostile conversations with the vindictive ghost of his dead wife. There's also stroke victim Ray Webb, a poetic young drifter; Sherwin, a piano player with a death wish; wealthy and bored big-game hunter Stumpp and the object of his affections, precocious and articulate eight-year-old Emily. All of Williams's people have lost something important, and all of them are spending time and energy with people they would not have chosen. Williams's psychology is subtle, her attention to teen diction superb. Like the Midwestern novelist Wright Morris, Williams gives her detailed, poetic novel an episodic, meandering structure, and the book ends without much resolution. But these are deliberate choices, made by an artist attentive to real people's psychesAand to how even our smallest decisions matter to others in ways we may never know. (Oct.)
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