Oh Joy

Oh Joy

The first time I heard Electric Warrior by 70’s glam-rockers T. Rex I was in my early 30’s. Two thoughts occurred in such rapid succession as to be almost simultaneous: This is fucking amazing!!! and Why haven’t I heard this before?!? That feeling of being-awed while also being-ashamed at having-been-ignorant is exactly how I felt when I first discovered Joy Williams, whose collection of short stories, Honored Guest, is the focus of today’s little review.

This book, which was published in 2004, contains 12 stories, all darkly weird, sad, and eerily discomforting. They’re also funny: very, very funny in fact; black and wry, jokes told cold and direct and delivered with the firm smack of a cast iron pan. Themes repeat: dogs, loneliness, death, Florida, the Southwest, mothers’ struggling to raise children after the death of a father, oddball philosophical engagement. There’s a lot of overlap with her novel, The Quick and the Dead, which was published during the same period and is so good that it deserves a post of its own at a later date.

The first time I read these stories I was quiet and alone, in my bed by a weak light. The second time I read them aloud, mostly alone (I read two aloud with a friend, each taking turns every couple pages); the hope was that by osmosis, the rite of repetition and admiration, something, anything, of Williams’ language would stick like a barb, hook into me, burrow deep, grow.

The language—oh wow, the language. I could spew lots of language in its praise, but save the one I’m about to employ I’ll spare you a prattling list: it’s great. Stick with me because I’m going to re-print some of it below, and then you’ll see what I mean.

Williams’s characters are easily recognizable—you’ll see them in your doddering old Aunt Blasie and your Cousin-Custard-the-Familiar, though typically they’ve been skewed through a lens of weirdness that sharpens their corners, and in doing so makes them that much more interesting. As for the plots—the things that these oddly familiar folks do—these are also oddly “normal” (a family trip, visiting old friends, a daughter returning home from school), though once again pushed through a strange skein of the abnormal. These stories are too natural to be called absurdist, and unlike George Saunders, another contemporary doing similar things, Williams never veers into Sci-Fi; they move with a certain grace, these stories, and terminate in something decisively incomplete yet oddly satisfying, the way you sometimes enjoy the crust of a pie more than its filling.

Many writers aim to evoke America, to transfer this great abstraction we’re experimenting with onto the page; to reify via their words a concept as multi-faceted and elusive as justice or angels. Although it’s a worthy goal only a few succeed, while far too many are praised for success when clearly they’ve missed it. We’re too broad a people and a place for me to assert, with any confidence, that Williams has Got It! (given the size of the undertaking and the sprawling sprattling multitudes involved, we’re wise to settle for synecdoche, or something resembling it, though too often critics, incapable of continence, insist otherwise, and aggrandize their praise broad as fisherman casting fallacies after a day on the water), so I’ll settle for this: to read these stories feels like a window into Americans living out life in America.

Taken at random: the first paragraph of the story “Anodyne”:

My mother began going to gun classes in February. She quit the yoga. As I understand it, yoga is concentration. You choose an object of attention and you concentrate on it. It may be; but need not be, the deity. This is how it was explained to me. The deity is different now than it used to be, it can be anything, pretty much anything at all. But even so, my mother let the yoga go and went on to what was called a “.38,”a little black gun with a long barrel at a pistol range in the city. Classes were Tuesday and Thursday evenings from five to seven. That was an hour and a half of class and half an hour of shooting time. I would go with her and afterwards we would go to the Arizona Inn and have tea and share a club sandwich. Then we would go home, which was just the way we left it. The dogs were there and the sugar machine was in the corner. We left it out because we had to use it twice a day. I knew how to read it and clean it. My mother and I both had diabetes and that is not something you can be cured of, not ever. In another corner was the Christmas tree. We liked to keep it up, although we had agreed not to replace any of the bulbs that burned out. At the same time we were not waiting until every bulb went dark before we took the tree down, either. We were going to be flexible about it, not superstitious. My grandmother had twelve orange-juice glasses. A gypsy told her fortune and said she’d live until the last of the twelve glasses broke. The gypsy had no way of knowing that my grandmother had twelve orange-juice glasses! When I knew my grandmother, she had seven left. She had four left when she died. The longest my mother and I ever left the tree up was Easter once when it came early.

Welcome to Tucson, Arizona, a place I’ve never actually been but have no problem feeling, based upon this introduction, in both my mind and fingernails. These people are also easily registered, as tangible as a trash can or a cashew.

This story is narrated by a teenaged daughter seeing a psychiatrist because, “When my father died, my mother felt that it was important that I not suffer a failure to recover from his death,” what a phrase. The mother takes gun classes and invites the instructor over for dinner, a man aptly called The Marksman, who regales mother and daughter with stories about people who failed to defend themselves against harm by not-having a firearm handy. Both the mother and daughter are diabetic and have a joint ritual involving testing their blood, which affords a nice and consistent material grounding. The story goes nowhere, really, at an all-too-easy pace: the mom and daughter get to know the gun instructor over dinners they host; eventually, when nothing romantic develops between The Marksman and the mother, he simply stops coming to dinner. The story concludes with the girl seeing her psychiatrist:

When my time was up he said, “You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”

It was like he was asking me which flavor ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.

“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.

The language here is so ordinary (the consumer choice of picking a non-necessity, in this case a flavor if ice cream) that it belies the importance of the question—do you want to live reality or not? The girl’s response contains hints of any teenager’s self-assertive combativeness (though she had to look up the meaning of the word, once she made her choice, “there was not much he could do about that”) while also being an uptick of affirmation, the answer we want for her: she chooses the real over its opposite.

That’s also a great summation of Williams writings in this collection—she takes the unmanifest world of fiction and makes it manifest on the page. Every-thing works well in every-story, and that’s a very difficult thing to pull off. Each of these stories is weirdly familiar, and as such tremendously engaging. Images abound, but rarely do they clearly foreshadow anything measurable and even less often do they explain themselves, and as a bonus there are no predictable endings; all of these things I find tremendously satisfying.

I devoured this collection, twice within that many weeks, because, among its many offerings, it sounds and feels like America. And that’s a place I like. So if you’re on the hunt for a great read—it’s right here.

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