Perched on the Precipice

Tucsonan Joy Williams approaches the subject of death in her new collection of stories

If Joy Williams' publisher made cigarettes instead of story collections, it would need to slap a consumer warning on Honored Guest. Not since Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World has the inhalation of narrative felt so much like a narcotic--alluring precisely because it is toxic. And Williams is so good, she merely has to wave her characters' melancholia under our noses, and we crave more.

For 10 years, Williams held her fans in abeyance, only to emerge in 2000 with an eviscerating novel, The Quick and the Dead. She followed with a collection of essays on the environment, Ill Nature. Honored Guest is the third in this flurry of publications, and it vibrates with a similar anxiety over sickness and death--emotional, psychological, physical and environmental. The book is littered with needles and unguents, abused over-the-counter drugs and dogs that are neglected. Animal lovers will find this book deeply upsetting.

This preoccupation with death is not a new one for Williams--it animated her 1982 collection, Taking Care--but in this new volume, it has sandblasted her prose to a smooth new strangeness reminiscent of Paul Bowles' best work. In the title story, a dying woman and her daughter lock horns. Bloated and ill, a stranger even to her own dog, the woman feels as if she is disappearing. "An honored guest," she says aloud at one point. "To live was like being an honored guest. ... Then you were no longer an honored guest."

There is a cackling kind of humor to Williams' vision of existence. We are, and then we're not. Death therefore isn't always hoary or tear-inducing; it just marks the end and can nearly be domesticated (intellectually). "At the beginning," thinks one of the characters in Honored Guest, "death was giving them the opportunity to be interesting. This was something special. There was only one crack at this. But then they lost sight of it somehow. It became a lesser thing, more terrible. Its meaning crumbled. They began to wait for it. Terrible, terrible."

And yet, even as they accept it, something about this barrier to the world beyond--or the nothingness beyond--addles and irks Williams' characters. They run toward it, are seduced by it. Like Jeff Bridges' character in the 1993 Peter Weir film Fearless, their encounters with death make them all the more isolated from people around them. And Williams' genius is to re-create the cracked-porcelain quality to this quality of aloneness.

A terrific writer about the natural world, Williams uses nature metaphorically. For example, in a telling aside, the narrator of "Ack" describes the shaky grip he continues to have on things after a breakdown. "I had some rough years before Pauline," he says. "I might as well have been stumbling about in one of those great whiteouts that occur in the far north where it is impossible to distinguish between a small object nearby and a large object a long way off. In whiteouts there is no certainty and every instinct is betrayed--even the birds fly into the ground."

As one might gather, a collection like this has few hallmark moments. When characters speak, they do not converse; instead, their comments dip and glance off one another. It's as if they're speaking to themselves. As in the dialogue of Richard Yates' terrific novels, no one ever says exactly what they mean, and because of that, they sound exactly how people actually speak.

It takes a brisk sensibility to enjoy these stories. In one story, a group of young people rob and terrify a mother trying to throw a wake for her recently deceased son. In "Charity," a similarly well-intentioned act of good will goes horribly awry when a woman tries to pick up some gypsies by the roadside.

Were Honored Guest the work of a younger writer, it might have embraced the voluptuousness of self-destruction--its hilarity, too. But the stakes are high for Williams' characters. They reach out to one another desperately, and time and again, they fail to connect. All the while, they feel that big clock in the sky tick-tocking behind them. As the narrator of "The Other Week" says to a man not her husband, "It's what I always think when I see cows grazing in the fields or standing in those pleasant streams ... that they have a very nice life until they don't."

With these bleak and boldly singular stories, Williams maps the emotional lives of men and women perched on that precipice between living and oblivion. We finish them hurriedly to find out which direction they choose.