A Haunting Tale To Judge 'The Quick and The Dead'
In The Quick and the Dead, Joy Williams fixes a gaze of cold but evocative detachment on the lives of an eclectic cast of characters living in the arid Southwest. Writer Sarah Braunstein says the surreal novel uses wit, candor and virtuosic prose to delve into "our subterranean selves."By NPR Books
In 2000 I was a 23-year-old fledgling writer. I had no idea how to write a story but wanted to do nothing else.
For one semester, Joy Williams? whose short-story collection Taking Care I'd long admired? was my teacher. With cutting precision and candor she tore into our drafts. Her clarity of vision, as writer and teacher both, astonished me.
It was not an easy experience, but it was an electric one. Her criticisms (there were plenty) made the most luminous wounds. I felt seen by her critiques: they were brisk, ego-less, and exactly right. (One letter concluded: "It seems I have criticized all your methods of telling this story; indeed, I believe they're all errant.") And her occasional praise felt like none I'd ever received: miraculous. "Fiction," she told us, "must be cold, cold, cold." I left that class shivering with excitement. I never saw her again.
Soon after, Williams published her fourth novel, The Quick and the Dead. It may be her best. This cold, cold, cold book creates exhilarating heat. Williams examines the strangest and ugliest parts of her characters. She shines hard light on their basest needs, weirdest quirks, and most demented spiritual quests.
The book follows a ragtag bunch, including three motherless daughters, a man haunted by his dead wife, a taxidermist and the eight-year-old girl he reveres. There's a mood of absurdity, anarchy, looming destruction, hyper-real horror and comedy. As the characters connect and disconnect, as they yell at one another and negotiate with one another, a spellbinding world comes into focus. The dialogue always crackles. Here's orphaned teenage Alice and adult Sherwin sitting together at a restaurant:
"You ever notice I got a glass eye?" Sherwin asked.
"No," Alice said.
"Pretty interesting, huh?"
"No," Alice said. "You don't have a glass eye. Both of them move."
"That's because it's on a coral fragment. There's a real piece of coral back there that the muscles are attached to, so it can swing around a little bit. A little piece of coral from America's only living reef tract off Marathon, Florida."
"You can't take coral in the Florida keys," Alice said. "It's a crime. A felony!"
"A felony!" Sherwin said.
"A misdemeanor, then. It should be a felony."
"My God, she'd deprive me of an eye."
The whole books is as brisk, funny, uncanny. We get a sense of something truly alive between, not merely inside, the characters. Though Williams spares her characters no pain, the overall effect is deeply compassionate. It's ultimately a kind of love, this coldness. To gaze as she does, to remove layers of socialization, to show us the bizarreness beneath, we need a brilliant and detached guide. This is us, Williams seems to say, These are our subterranean selves. The pleasures and pains of this book are vast. I refused to look away, even when I wanted to.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Amelia Salutz.
Excerpt: 'The Quick and the Dead' by Joy Williams
The winter had not brought rain and there were no flowers, there would be no flowers. Still, the land in the spring of the year when Alice would turn sixteen could not be said to be suffering from drought. The desert knew no drought, really. Anything so habitual and prolonged was simply life?a life invisible and anticipatory. What was germinative would only remain so that spring. What was possible was neither dead nor alive. Relief had been promised, of course.
For more than a month now, after school, Alice had been caring for six-year-old fraternal twins, Jimmy and Jacky. They lived with their mother, who was away all day, cutting hair. Their father was off in another state, building submarines. Hair, submarines, it was disgusting, Alice thought. She did not find the children at all interesting. They cried frequently, indulged themselves in boring, interminable narratives, were sentimental and cruel, and when frustrated would bite. They had a pet rabbit that Alice feared for. She made them stop giving it baths all the time and tried to interest them in giving themselves baths, although in this she was not successful. She assisted them with special projects for school. It was never too early for investigative reporting. They should not be dissuaded by their teacher's discomfort; to discomfort teachers was one's duty. They were not too young to be informed about the evils of farm subsidies, monoculture, and overproduction. They should know, if only vaguely at first, about slaughterhouses. They shouldn't try to learn everything at once?they'd probably get discouraged?but they should know how things come into being, like ponies, say, and how they're taken out of being and made into handbags and coats. They should get a petition going to stop the lighting of athletic fields, since too much light obliterated the night sky. Excessive light was bad. On the other hand, some things perceived as bad were good. Wasps, for instance. They should not destroy the wasp nest they discovered in their garage with poisons because wasp-nest building was fun to watch in a time-lapse photography sort of way. They should marvel at the wasps' architectural abilities, their insect awareness of a supreme future structure they alone were capable of creating. Wasps were cool. The queens knew how to subsist in a state of cryogenic preservation in the wintertime. Jimmy and Jacky could get special credit for their understanding of wasps, agribusiness, slaughterhouses?just to name a few possibilities. She was willing to make learning interesting for them.
But she didn't help much with homework. Mostly the three of them just hung out. Little kids didn't instinctively know how to hang out, Alice was surprised to learn. Sometimes they'd walk down to the Goodwill store and see the kind of stuff people had wanted once but didn't want anymore. She usually didn't buy anything because she didn't believe in consumption, but once she bought a nun in a snow dome. The nun was only fifty cents because the snow had turned brown and clotted and fell in revolting clumps when you turned the thing upside down. What was a nun doing in one of those snow domes anyway? Alice had never seen anything like it. The twins had never seen anything like it either. But Goodwill was only good for once or twice a week. The rest of the time they'd sit around in these tiny plastic chairs the boys had in their junk-filled room and Alice would discuss things with them, chiefly environmental concerns. Alice liked talking about animals and excess packaging. She opened their small eyes to the world of drift nets, wetland mitigation, predator control, and overpopulation. She urged them to discuss the overpopulation problem with their mother. Sometimes their attention wandered. They had a bunk bed in their room, and they both slept on the bottom bunk. When they were seven, they'd be permitted to sleep on the top bunk. They could hardly wait.
Their mother hadn't paid Alice yet, and near the end of the second month Alice asked for her money.
"Yes, yes, sure," the mother said. "I have to go to the bank tomorrow. How about Saturday?"
She appeared Saturday morning at Alice's house in her big sloppy station wagon. Alice and her granny and poppa were sitting on the patio drinking coffee and watching the birds at the feeder. Actually, only Alice was watching the birds, since her granny and poppa were talking avidly about compost. Alice couldn't talk about compost so early in the morning, but they could. Compost was as munificent as God to them, just as interesting as God certainly. They said that the reason healthy plants repel pests is that they have such intense vibrations in the molecules of their cells. The higher the state of health, the higher the vibrations. Because pests' vibrations are on a much lower level, they receive a distinct shock when they come into contact with a healthy plant.
Why not? Alice thought.
Alice sauntered down to the station wagon, which was packed with luggage. "You taking a trip?" she asked.
"Didn't Jimmy and Jacky tell you? Oh, that's right, I swore them to secrecy.
Let's go out and have some breakfast. I'll buy you a donut."
The mother gave Alice the creeps. She wore large, shapeless dresses she called her "jelly bags."
"I've had my breakfast," Alice said.
"I'd like to talk to you," the woman said. "Breakfast really isn't necessary. Why don't we go out to the state park?that's a nice ride."
Alice looked back at the patio, but her granny and poppa had gone inside. She shrugged and got into the car. Cars had never charmed her, and this one seemed particularly vile. They sped off to the park about fifteen miles away. The lovely, lovely mountains tumbled across the horizon.
The kids' mother moved one big arm and groped around in the backseat. The car veered down the road, Alice staring stoically ahead, until she retrieved what she was after, a cocktail in a can. "Want a pop?" she said. Alice shook her head. "Sure?" the woman said. "It's mostly fruit juices."
I want . . . a scar, Alice thought. A scar that would send shivers up peoples' spines but would not elicit pity. She didn't want that kind of scar.
"Where are Jimmy and Jacky?" Alice finally said.
"With a babysitter."
Alice looked at her.
"I'm trying out somebody new just for the morning, then we're leaving. Back to the husband. We're going to be a family again."
"You owe me three hundred dollars," Alice said.
"I do? Those hours added up, didn't they?"
"Do you want a receipt for tax purposes?"
"I'd love a receipt," the mother said.
They entered the park. A small deceased animal was lying in the road, and the car ahead of them ran over it. They ran over it. A herd of men in fluorescent shorts jogged by.
"God, I hate this place," the woman said. She rummaged in the backseat for another pop.
"Why did we come here, then?"
"I mean the whole place, the state."
She turned abruptly into a parking lot. There were some benches and a few little structures for shade. She turned off the ignition and got out of the car. "Gotta tinkle," she said. Alice sat and gazed at the mountains. When you climbed, you'd move from cholla to juniper and pinyon, then to firs and aspens. Zero to eight thousand feet in forty miles. To live in a place where you could do something like that was sensational, like living exceptionally fast or living in two different bodies. The little animals of the desert didn't know that the little animals of the mountains, only moments away, even existed. Or the big animals the big animals for that matter.
Alice looked around the littered seat for paper and pencil to compose her bill, her legs sticking to the stinking vinyl of the car seat. She got out and stood in the shade. A tinkle, she thought. The awful woman was probably taking a dump. At last she and her jelly bag appeared. She had red hair today, though sometimes it was chestnut. She was a genius with hair color, there was no denying that.
"You know what keeps going through my head?" the woman said, "DAK's incredible blowout price. . . . We're getting a new stereo. Can't get it out of my head."
Alice handed her the bill she'd tallied. "It's in crayon, unfortunately, but I'm sure it will be acceptable. You could give me a check, though I'd prefer cash."
"That's what's going through your head, huh, like DAK's incredible blowout price?" The woman laughed and dropped the piece of paper to the ground. "If you think I'm paying you, you're crazy. Pervert. Bitch. You'd better watch out."
Alice looked at the piece of paper. What was wrong with it? It just lay there.
"My boys say you say the world would be better off without them. They say you killed a pony and a farmer and that you make them eat lettuce-and-rabbit-pellet sandwiches. They say you hate nuns and say not to flush the toilet every time when it's only yellow water. But it was the wasp nest that did it. I'm excessively susceptible to the stings of bees and wasps and could go into anaphylactic reaction and die. And they shrieked at me when I sprayed the damn thing. It was as big as a beer keg. They cursed me for destroying a thing that could have killed their own mother."
"Fatal anaphylactic reaction is actually rare," Alice said.
"Half the stuff they told me is even on the list."
"What list?" Alice said. Her voice sounded peculiar. You could give me a check, though I'd prefer cash kept sliding through her mind.
"The checklist of symptoms of satanic ritual abuse compiled by an after-midnight radio psychologist who's a nationally recognized authority on the subject. The list includes but is not limited to preoccupation with feces and death, questionable acting out, talk of mutilation and dismemberment, and fear of being normal and cooperative." She ticked them off on her fingers.
"Why, that's just stupid," Alice said.
"You're the one who's stupid, dumbass," the woman said, "thinking I'd pay for your time. I've got better things to do with my money."
"Jimmy and Jacky misinterpreted my remarks a little," Alice said. It was probably the hair and submarine emphasis in their background that made them somewhat wobbly in the comprehension department.
"You'd better watch it," the woman said. "Get away from me." Alice hadn't moved. "You'd better watch it," she said again, laughing, as she got into the station wagon. Then she drove away.
A black bird, a phainopepla, rocketed past and alighted on a trembling mesquite bush. Alice felt that the desert was looking at her, that it kept coming closer, incuriously. She stared into the distance, seeing it as something ticking, something about to arrive. A brief, ferocious wind came up and a Styrofoam cup sailed by and impaled itself upon an ocotillo. She started back toward the park's entrance, walking not along the road but through the desert itself. Cars and vans occasionally passed by. Tiny heads were what she saw, behind closed windows. She walked quickly, sometimes breaking into a run, through the gulleys and over the rocks, past the strange growths, all living their starved, difficult lives. Everything had hooks or thorns. Everything was saw-edged and spiny-pointed. Everything was defensive and fierce and determined to live. She liked this stuff. It all had a great deal of character. At the same time, it was here only because it had adapted to the circumstances, the external and extreme circumstances of its surroundings.
Plants were lucky because when they adapted it wasn't considered a compromise. It was more difficult for a human being, a girl.
Excerpted from The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. Copyright ? 2002 by Joy Williams. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.