Last month, midway through the seven-hour drive between Marfa and Austin, my friends and I sat at a picnic table over burnt winter grass, eating the last of our forty grapefruits and some cold steak whose marbling had turned to candle wax. An old man approached us from some distance, making his way over with difficulty. We waited to be hit up for a handout. He wore suspenders over a neat plaid shirt open to a sunburnt throat, and his eyelids were folded over like dog-eared pages. His white mustache combed the wind, and he called us all ma’am.
He’d seen us wrestling our flapping map and had come to point out the landmarks: the dainty bank with Doric columns and plywood for windows, the old hospital, the old hotel, the old pharmacy. Everything was now something else, or shuttered—it was a hipster-free, pre-Marfa situation, a town dying like a tree dies, from the center out. My friend studied the black-and-yellow business card he gave her. “Bee removal! We could have used you when they were gobbling up our avocados.” He looked over our lunch spread. “I guess you could spare them just a little bit.” He spoke so much slower than we did.
It was a faint reproach, but I felt a rush of shame and also excitement. The line actually felt good in the mouth. “I guess you could spare them just a little bit.” We’d assumed he would ask us for something. The yellow jackets had scissored off such tiny chunks. We were huge, lumbering as we swatted them away. A small moment had engulfed the larger one. I recognized this flash of moral vertigo: it’s found in the short stories of Joy Williams.
Williams published her first story at age twenty-two, more than a half century ago. Even her earliest stories from the sixties and seventies are electrifyingly fresh and confident—like a calm evening stroll through goblin gardens. Later ones lose some of the storm-green visionary quality (though the very recent reclaim it), but they gain in humanity and in their keening sense of an eroding natural world. In 2015, Knopf assembled her three previous collections and thirteen new stories as The Visiting Privilege. It was, as Ben Marcus wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “one of the most fearless, abyss-embracing literary projects our literature has seen.” The Visiting Privilege is ceaselessly gripping, confiding and strange, a solace and an unsettling. We should have had it in the glovebox of our car, in case of breakdown.
I came to Williams’s work late. Sharp readers had told me about her for years. Why did I resist? Perhaps it was the camouflage of the anodyne name, which sounded like a writer of greeting cards, not of soul-shaking, lucid dreams of mortality.
“Do you want me to paint your nails or do your hair,” Gwendal asked.
“No,” Gloria said. She was recalling a bad thought she’d had once, a very bad thought. It had caused no damage, however, as far as she knew.
There are writers who make you see what they have seen, and then there are writers who make you see what you have seen and missed. Those are the ones that pull you back to them.
“What do you want from a short story?” a journalist once asked Williams. ‘‘To be devastated in some way,’’ she responded. In “The Blue Men,” a mother brings a shirt to her son in prison, who is to be executed by lethal injection.
She had bought the shirt new and then washed it at home several times so it was soft and then she had driven over to that place … Together, mutely, they had bent their heads over it and stared. They watched the shirt and it seemed to shift and shrink as though to accommodate itself to some ghastly and impossible interstice of time and purpose.
“What a shirt,” her child said.
“Give it back,” May whispered. She was terribly frightened. She had obliged some lunatic sense of decorum, and dread—the dread that lay beyond the fear of death—seized her.
“This is the one, I’m going out in this one,” her child said. He was thin, his hair was grey.
“I wasn’t thinking,” May said. “Please give it back, I can’t think about any of this.”
“I was born to wear this shirt,” her child said.
Willams’s interview in The Paris Review mentions a craft lecture in which she had declined to discuss craft. She had talked, instead, of writers “whose way of touching us is simply by exploding on the lintel of our minds.” Back from Texas, I drank this in. I understood the little detonation the bee wrangler had wrought. “There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht,” Williams tells her interviewer. “No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed.” Her stories are all in pursuit of Sehnsucht. They find it and frame it.
Perhaps Williams is right to dodge talk of craft. I don’t think you could learn to write by studying her; what she pulls off is too risky. Short stories are generally better suited to more contained experiences, ones that don’t knock drama into melodrama without giving it time to right itself again. They can stagger under the burden of death. But Williams has a fondness for offhand fatality, for baroque accident and lingering illness, and her stories haul this gothic cargo with the pragmatism of tugboats. The effect is comforting. We’ll all die, and for this to be funny as well as awful is a kind of benediction. There is an unsmiling slapstick to this, a Buster Keaton hilarity tinged with the sublime.
“I suspect there’s only one thing to know about that other world,” Deke opined. “You don’t go to it when you’re dead. That other world exists only when you’re in this one.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Angela said. She took a deep, uncertain breath.
And then there are the acts of radical narrative compression. From “Winter Chemistry”: “He didn’t care for women and couldn’t care for men.” Or: “The two girls sat on the beach eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time.” (They were drowning.) Her characters have a disarming vulnerability, as if they were caught midblink by a camera; they are resigned, almost detached, in the midst of situations that unravel or dissolve. Dogs are frequent walk-ons, full of good will but with no high expectations of humans—they are courteous and astute but not clowns for our affection. They do not wag their tails.
Reviewers call attention again and again to Williams’s misanthropy. I don’t believe in it; her stories can be achingly generous. What gets called misanthropy could be the quality of openness children have before they learn to distinguish curiosity from disgust. “The tree was quite lovely and it flourished,” Williams writes in “Shorelines.” “It had been planted over the grease trap of the sink. I am always honest when I can be.” Williams uses the word evil often, if not lightly, but malice and anger never sour her sentences.
Do the stories sound depressing? It is not possible for them to be, with such burning intelligence, ambushing laughs, and ecstatic jolts of dialogue. In the title story of The Visiting Privilege, one of the patients in a psychiatric hospital sees through a visitor battening discreetly on their anguish.
“I’m passionate, intense and filled with private reverie, and so is my friend,” the girl said, “so don’t slime us like you do.”
The caboose on a story often turns out to be an engine pulling it in a new direction. The point of view in “Hammer” swings abruptly from the mother we have grown to love (now dying, naturally) to someone we’ve only just met in the last three lines—her nurse, who is angling to ensure a new colleague doesn’t get a permanent job. The death turns Audenesque, becomes something tiny and far away, and is all the more moving for it. The narrator of “Dangerous” concludes, “Eventually I moved out of the shithole, though I still go to AA. I even stopped drinking. I would say then that all is continuing here. Is it the same way there?” These last lines are also the first direct address to a reader, a lone listener somewhere in the wide, echoing world. These spheres of perception brush against one another like a hand dragging the wrong way across cat fur. Nothing that we experience, says that shivery sensation, is ours alone. Or rather, each person is at the center of their own story and at the periphery of those of others, a fact we remember and forget and remember a thousand times.
Hilary Mantel once gave a talk in which she observed that a short story is a glimpse through a half-open door, “and yet,” and I remember her hand chopping emphatically at the air, “a glimpse is not trivial.” Next week, Joy Williams will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Award for lifetime achievement, named for a bird—Africa’s “least aquatic ibis” (description courtesy of the Oregon Zoo)—which might please her; birds appear nearly as often as dogs in her stories. She will almost certainly wear black prescription sunglasses, as she does night and day, indoors and out. So here she’ll be, in this big city of New York where she appears so seldom. I don’t want to meet her. Well, that’s a lie. I do want to, badly, and yet she’s given me everything I could possibly ask for in her stories. I wonder if those who look at others so well want to be looked at themselves.
Courtney Hodell is a book editor and the director of writers’ programs at the Whiting Foundation.