I was taxed by this book. Some of the prose was about as good as it gets, the three complicated fifteen year old girls at its center had all the makings to be my favorite protagonists ever and it was twisted enough to keep me cringing through three hundred plus pages, but I couldn’t help wishing Joy Williams had hacked it all down into a fantastic, linear, concise short story. Or maybe four or five short stories—there is so much incredible material here that I would love to read all of it again, broken down and repackaged.
Now, I don’t shy away from complicated structures, expansive casts of characters, symbolism, surrealism. I don’t even shy away from all of those elements coexisting in the same book. But, when that book becomes so high-concept and convoluted that I don’t understand what is going on, it makes me wonder what we could have done without. This isn’t a rhetorical question, by the way—I would love feedback! This novel was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, so I think that other people probably can make convincing arguments here.
The Quick and the Dead is an apt title for this novel. Alice, who kicks it off, is very quick. She is a mouthy animal rights activist being raised by her ghostly grandparents. She wears t-shirts that say “Thank You for Not Breeding,” throws rocks as motorcyclists riding through protected nature preserves, only to get her teeth knocked out, and spearheads a scenario in which a teenager, deformed by a stroke, is tied to a rock and harassed, meeting the eventual demise of the animal she found him carrying. Her dear friend, Corvus, retreats from the outside world after her parents are killed in a freak drowning accident. The third teenager is Annabel. Annabel, I think, is supposed to be materialistic and shallow, but she sticks out in this novel as the most normal, relatable person around. And yes, that’s interesting, isn’t it.
We also meet Annabel’s father, in love with their Buddhist houseboy yet haunted by his grotesque dead wife, Ginger, Sherwin, a goth-y piano player who flirts with death until it gets the wrong idea, the aforementioned teenaged stroke-victim, who is preoccupied with a lab monkey who surely died to make his survival possible, Stumpp, who runs a ghastly wildlife museum filled with taxidermied animals until he’s convinced by a bizarre eight year old girl named Emily Bliss Pickless to shut it down…and more. More.
This little Emily arrives on the scene to great effect, but so late in the book that I found myself wanting to call the novel police. Can you introduce a character, a character who gets her own chapters, more than halfway through a novel? Well, yes—Joy Williams did. Emily is so precious that I wanted to hate her as a character, but she gets away with it, Joy Williams does, by maneuvering these details into the equation that are, I think, pretty tough to hate. Emily, super serious and misunderstood, calls her classmates her “COLLEGUES.” So cute. She also has a habit of pouring sand on her head. My favorite sentence devoted to Emily comes on page 189-90 after her mother’s odious boyfriend cleans and creepily combs out her hair. “Emily wandered off into the yard. She crouched down for a thimbleful of sand, and was about to sprinkle it on her head but stopped short, remembering she was already under suspicion for this act.”
Oh yeah. And there’s a nursing home, just FULL of meaning. Children, the elderly and the disabled, full of meaning. Great sentences can’t necessarily save that for me.
But take this death scene from page 296 (I won’t tell you whose death scene):
He shook a cigarette out of his pack, lit it, and held out his hand to present it to her, but she didn’t move, so he took a step forward, then stumbled over something, losing his balance and pitching against one of the leaning mirrors. He turned, twisting, trying to recover, and fell hard against another one, falling harder than he could imagine possible, into the slivering, and felt it break into him, sliding its cool tongues into his hands and throat and heart. He lay on the floor among the glittering, his blood welling and then skimming down the slim nails of glass. He had almost heard the sound of the glass slipping into him, a sound like his father’s shovels slicing into the ground. His father had called himself a tree surgeon, though in fact he had specialized in just cutting them down, taking them down to the stump. He had saws longer than his arms and called them his Bad Boys. Now look at this Bad Boy, he’d say. He kept his tools beautiful, his shovels so sharp a man could shave with them. No dead daddy, he was still alive, wearing out his fourth wife somewhere in the Texas hill country. Such a nice clean sound he’d first heard, but that was past now, replaced by a sloppier, more distracting one, a squeaking and gurgling. Death by mirrors. Cave, Cave, Dominus videt…and _________ was showing himself to be a mess.
Jeez, that’s good. How can I complain, right? And then, combine it with a conversation a page earlier this character had about most thoughts people have not being thoughts at all but memories, and about how thinking about the dead does nothing to extend them, and then combine all of that with the fact that there is a character named Stumpp in the book—everything is woven together, everything is here for a purpose, everything is beautifully written and yet, I found it all too exhausting to parse or to love.
But–Joy Williams has some short story collections that I am DYING to pick up.