An anonymous Boston Globe reviewer once described Joy Williams as “Annie Dillard bumping into Cotton Mather.” She is also routinely compared with such contemporary writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, as well as the film director Roman Polanski and the Russian author Anton Chekhov. She is particularly distinguished by her tone, which the writer-reviewer Carolyn See has described as one of “elegant melancholia”; ultimately her fellow writer Gail Godwin notes, “Joy Williams writes like nobody but Joy Williams” (Godwin). Her technique is described as Kafkaesque and minimalist, allied with the so-called K-Mart realism. Her story “Health,” appearing in the collection entitled Escapes (1990), provides an excellent example of Williams’s techniques and concerns. Williams’s stories frequently center on families and the complexities of loss, absence, uncertainty, disease, death, and the layer of fear and uneasiness underlying the surface lives of her characters. Pammy, the central character in “Health,” is no exception.
Williams’s bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, opens as Morris drops off his daughter, the stocky blonde-haired 12-year-old Pammy, at an unnamed Texas city spa for one of her tanning sessions, a birthday gift from Morris and his wife, Marge. Pammy likes to be tanned and knows the various types: “golden tans, pool tans, even a Florida tan which seemed yellow back in Texas” (114). We learn that Pammy, an aspiring racing skater, is a privileged child accustomed to traveling to such vacation spots as Mexico, Padre Island, and the Gulf beaches. Unlike her friend Wanda, who is adopted and has an alcoholic stepfather, Pammy apparently has decent, caring parents; her science professor father teaches her to drive, and Marge, her 35-year-old mother, studies art history and film at the university where Morris teaches. Pammy, however, is beset with adolescent uncertainties and fears: Even before she reaches the spa, the narrator reveals her belief that “behind words were always things, sometimes things you could never tell anyone, certainly no one you loved, frightening things that weren’t even true” (113). On the freeway, the impermanence, unreliable technology, and violence of the contemporary world inhabited by Pammy and her family are symbolized in the truck that carries thrown-away televisions sets. The set facing them has a bullet hole in the exact center of the screen.
Williams’s often wounded and always vulnerable characters wander through a land metaphorically littered with rusting cars and broken television sets. Two weeks ago Pammy became infected with tuberculosis, a disease that her friend Wanda sees as the romantic illness that infects artists, poets, and other “highly sensitive individuals” (116). And she does seem extraordinarily observant and perceptive. As the narrator notes with characteristic precision the receptionist’s “scratched metal desk” and “black jumpsuit and feather earrings” (115), the tanning room’s “ultraviolet tubes” and “black vinyl headrest,” Pammy turns on the tanning bed timer “and the light leaps out, like an animal in a dream, like a murderer in a movie” (116). The coffinlike shape of the tanning bed and the uneasy atmosphere are intensified as Pammy, lying in the tanning bed, thinks of Snow White in her “glass coffi n,” suggesting the solitary young woman who was surrounded by men and poisoned by a scheming woman. Pammy further recalls “ugly” things that would “break her parents’ hearts”: One school friend stole green stamps from her mother to buy a personal massager, another has a cross-dressing brother, while a third attacked his father and left him unconscious.
A short story, according to Joy Williams, “should break your heart and make you feel ill at ease. It should be swift and damaging” (Catapano). During Pammy’s 25 tanning minutes she not only reminisces but also overhears conversations through the paperthin walls, tales of disease and suicide, thievery and trickery. In such a decadent mood, readers are not really surprised when the door opens and the terrified Pammy sees a man silently stare at her nakedness and then walk out again. He does not respond to her frightened “What?” (120). In panic, she hurriedly dresses, staring at herself in the mirror and wondering about a world where “she can be looked at and not discovered . . . speak and not be known” (121). As she walks out into the rain, she is aware of grime and neon palm trees and obscenely shaped candy and “a clump of bamboo with some beer cans glittering in its ragged, grassy center” (121). A moment later her mother unlocks the car door to admit Pammy and then locks her safely inside, but the mother is too late: Pammy will see the sinister male figure over and over as she grows older in a world “infinite in its possibilities, and uncaring” (122).
Catapano, Peter. “The Dark at the End of the Tunnel.” New York Times, 21 January 1990, p. 9.
Godwin, Gail. Review of “Escapes.” Chicago Tribune, 14 January 1990, xiv, p. 1.
See, Carolyn. Los Angeles Times, 25 December 1989, p. E12. Williams, Joy. “Health.” In Escapes. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990.