|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