Joy Williams is a short-story writer with a dark vision encased in a clean prose style. Although a few of her stories have an experimental, almost surrealistic form, and often a wry, ironic tone, the bulk fall into what can be called the realist mode, minimalist division: Williams deals with American family life in the last third of the twentieth century, focusing on troubles, handicaps, and incompletions. She interests readers in these subjects without divulging all the information that they might ordinarily want or need about the characters and their situations. What further distinguishes her stories is a prose style that is clean but highly metaphorical, for the images and motifs of the stories often carry the meaning more deeply than the action or exposition.
Hers is not a reassuring portrait of contemporary American life. The families are often dysfunctional, physically as well as psychologically: parents abandon children, by leaving or by dying, and children wander in life without guidance. Alcohol is a cause of the unhappiness as well as its hoped-for cure. In nearly all her stories, love is being sought but is rarely found and nearly as rarely expressed. Characters seem unable to ask the questions that might free them from their unhappiness; the best they can hope for is an escape to some other state, physical or emotional. Disabilities, addictions, dead animals, arguments in restaurants, and car accidents abound in Williams’s stories.
Williams’s first collection Taking Care contains stories published in the 1970’s and early 1980’s in The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Esquire, Ms., and other leading vehicles of contemporary American fiction. These stories show a firmness and subtlety that have markedWilliams’s style over her entire career (although there was probably more range here than in her second collection). The themes that would mark that career are clearly established in this first collection. Although many of the stories are riveting in their subject matter, they leave readers with a sense of hollowness and futility. There are few resolutions in Williams, even early in her career, but there are the tensions, violence, and disconnections that mark most of her stories.
In the title story, Jones, a preacher, is “taking care” of two generations: a wife dying of leukemia and a six-month-old baby girl whom his daughter has left him to care for before fleeing to Mexico. Jones baptizes his granddaughter and then brings his wife back from the hospital; in the last line of the story, “Together they enter the shining rooms”—rooms made “shining” by Jones’s love and care. This epiphanic ending, however, cannot erase all the abandonment and death. Jones is surely “taking care” of more than his required load in this life, and there is a heaviness, a spiritual sadness, that is expressed appropriately inWilliams’s flat, terse prose style.
Other stories in Taking Care have similar themes and forms. In “Traveling to Pridesup,” three sisters in their eighties and nineties, “in a big house in the middle of Florida,” find a baby abandoned in a feed bag on their mailbox. In the journey in their old Mercedes to find someone to help, Lavinia gets them lost, drives hundreds of miles in circles, and finally crashes. In a tragicomic mix reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, the story ends with a painful revelation, “the recognition that her life and her long, angry journey through it, had been wasteful and deceptive and unnecessary.”
“Winter Chemistry,” features two students who spy on their teacher every night and inadvertently kill him when they are caught. “Shepherd” concerns a young woman who cannot get over the death of her German shepherd and who will probably lose her boyfriend because of it. (“‘We are all asleep and dreaming, you know,’” he tells her in a speech that might apply to characters in other stories in Taking Care. “‘If we could ever actually comprehend our true position, we would not be able to bear it, we would have to find a way out.’”) In “The Farm,” alcohol, infidelities, and the accidental killing of a hitchhiker will destroy the central couple. “Breakfast,” too, has many of the stock Williams ingredients: parents who abandon their children, a half-blind dog, and characters who are both alcoholic and lacking direction.
Possibly the only difference in Taking Care from Williams’s later fiction is that there appears to be more humor in these early stories, and more effort by Williams to perfect a wry, ironic style. (“The Yard Boy,” for example, is a surreal caricature of a kind of New Age spiritual character.) Yet the other landmarks are there as well: The style is often flat and cryptic, events and incidents seem to have more a symbolic than a representational quality, and people pass by one another without touching or talking. There is little love in these stories (even in those that are supposedly love stories), but often a violence beneath the surface that is constantly threatening to bubble up and destroy the characters or kill their animals (as in “Preparation for a Collie” or “Woods”). People rarely have names; rather, they are “the woman,” “her lover,” “the child.” Williams writes easily about children, but hers are children who are wandering in an adult world without supervision or love (as in “Train” or “The Excursion.”) Williams works here in the great American tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), in which characters become what Anderson called “grotesques.” Williams writes of grotesques as well, of bizarre characters who are lost or losing or obsessive, and whom nothing, apparently, will save.
These elements can be found throughout the title story of Williams’s second collection, Escapes. The narrator, a young girl, describes the time when her alcoholic mother (abandoned by the father) took her to see a magician. The mother, drunk, wanders onto the stage and has to be removed. Layers of escape, both literal and metaphorical, characterize this story: the father’s abandonment of his dysfunctional family; the magician’s illusions (“Houdini was more than a magician, he was an escape artist”); the mother’s addiction to alcohol; and the daughter’s dreams of escaping her lot: “I got out of this situation,” Lizzie writes in the last line of the story, “but it took me years.”
Williams’s later short fiction is unique not only for this bleak view of human nature, in which people are shown trapped and searching for some inexpressible transcendence, but also for a prose style that is both less and more than it appears: less because, like other minimalists whom Williams resembles (such as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie), she draws only the outlines of the action and leaves the characters’ backgrounds to the reader’s imagination and more because Williams manipulates metaphors and motifs in such a way that they carry a heavy weight of meaning in her stories. In “Escapes,” for example, the old magician’s illusion of sawing a woman in half becomes the vehicle for the story’s theme: The alcoholic mother tells her daughter that she witnessed that trick performed by Houdini when she was a child. She wanted to be that lady, “sawed in half, and then made whole again!” Her subsequent intrusion into the show by walking onstage is her attempt to escape by realizing that dream, “to go and come back,” but the dream is impossible to realize and therefore self-destructive. The usher escorts mother and daughter out of the theater, assuring the drunken woman that she can “pull [herself] through.” She will not, however, succeed in reconstructing herself and her life, and in the end, the reader suspects, the daughter will escape only by abandoning the mother.
The stories in Escapes thus seem to work at cross-purposes: Although the prose style is clean and uncluttered, the motifs and metaphors lead readers to meanings beneath the surface, to a depth that is full of horror and despair. In the second story, “Rot” (first reprinted in the O. Henry Prize collection of 1988), these concerns and formal characteristics continue. Dwight persuades his wife, who is twenty-five years younger than he is, to allow him to park the vintage Thunderbird he has just bought in their living room. The car is full of rot and rust—a symbol, readers may suspect, of the couple’s marriage. The reader learns little about these characters, what they do or where they are headed; instead, symbolism replaces information: The rusting car was found in a parking lot with its owner dead inside it; now Dwight sits in the car in the living room and looks dead.
The other stories in Escapes take a similar approach: “The Skater,” which was chosen to appear in the 1985 collection Best American Short Stories, presents a family, parents and a daughter, on a tour of East Coast prep schools. It slowly becomes apparent that the sickness at the heart of this family is the memory of the daughter—like the skater of the title who glides in and out of the story at several points—who died the previous year; the parents simply want Molly to be away from the sadness of their home.
The young woman in “Lulu” puts an old couple to bed after all three have gotten drunk one morning; she then attempts to drive off with their boa constrictor, apparently searching for love (she wonders, “Why has love eluded me”). In “Health,” a twelve-year-old girl is undergoing ultraviolet treatments to help her recover from tuberculosis but is surprised by a man who walks in during one of her tanning sessions, as she lies naked on the couch. The grandmother of “The Blue Men” tries, in part through use of alcohol, to assuage her grief over her dead son, who was executed for murdering a police officer. “The Last Generation,” the collection’s closing story, depicts a father, numbing his pain over his wife’s death through drink and work and neglecting his own children.
Williams’s bleak vision is mitigated only by the sureness of her prose and the symbolic poetry of her language. “Bromeliads,” in which a young mother abandons her new baby to her parents, becomes the central metaphor of the story’s meaning. As the young woman explains, bromeliads are “thick glossy plants with extraordinary flowers. . . . They live on nothing. Just the air and the wind”—a perfect description of the mother herself.
In “White,” a couple has moved from Florida to Connecticut to escape the memory of their two babies, who have died. They cannot, however, escape their grief, even in alcohol and evasion. At a party they throw for a departing Episcopal priest, the husband describes a letter that the couple has recently received from the woman’s father; after the greeting, the letter contains nothing, “just a page, blank as the day is long.” The letter becomes a symbol for the missed communication, the things that are not said and that may in fact be inexpressible, abandonment and death among them.
In the end, readers are left with the bleakness ofWilliams’s stories—despite a minimalist style and a use of metaphor that almost negates that vision. Only “Honored Guest” differs in that it implies affirmation of life through a character’s likening those alive to honored guests. Nevertheless,Williams remains one of the more highly regarded short-fiction writers in modern-day America, often anthologized and the recipient of numerous awards. Along with Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Richard Ford, and a handful of other contemporaries, she continues to produce works that are read by university students and the general public alike, and younger writers emulate her polished style.
Novels: State of Grace, 1973; The Changeling, 1978; Breaking and Entering, 1988; The Quick and the Dead, 2000.
Nonfiction: Florida Keys: A History and Guide, 1986; Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, 2001.
Cooper, Rand Richards. “The Dark at the End of the Tunnel.” The New York Times, January 21, 1990.
Heller, Zoe. “Amazing Moments from the Production Line.” The Independent, July 21, 1990, p. 28.
Hills, Rust. Review of State of Grace. Esquire 80 (July, 1973): 26, 28.Kirkus Reviews. Review of Escapes. 57 (November 15, 1989): 1633.
Kornblatt, Joyce. “Madness, Murder, and the Surrender of Hope.” Review of Taking Care. The Washington Post Book World, March 21, 1982, 4.
Malinowski, Sharon. “Joy Williams.” In Contemporary Authors, edited by Deborah A. Straub. Vol. 22.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Williams, Joy. “Joy Williams.” Interview by Molly McQuade. Publishers Weekly 237 (January 26, 1990): 400-401.