In the near-future, decidedly post-apocalyptic United States of Joy Williams’s “Harrow,” a passel of like-minded individuals has gathered at a run-down resort. This rickety hostel sits by a lake, nicknamed “Big Girl,” that’s so rotten it’s turned black.

Khristen, a teenager, arrives at this bleak vacationland after the boarding school to which her mother has abandoned her scatters students to the four winds. There are no more resources available and no purpose left for teachers, who mainly badgered charges with koan-like questions: “Why are you here? Why are you here? What is the purpose of human life on this earth?” Escorted to the train station, Khristen travels to the end of the line and eventually makes her way to Big Girl’s shores.

At the resort, she meets Lola, its wizened, purposeful proprietress. “You’re welcome to stay for a night or two though you’re not at all qualified,” says Lola. “Frankly those of your age are anathema to our whole concept.” Nevertheless, she allows Khristen to move into Room No. 5, “on the other side of the breezeway from Honey, Heart of Gold.” Lola also encourages her new resident to attend the bowling alley birthday party for 10-year-old Jeffrey, where she witnesses his unhinged mother, Barbara, demand “a gutter block, a pitcher of martinis, and a couple of chocolate milks.”

Khristen wanders the grounds for a time before finally being invited to attend a meeting in one of the dusty, bygone recreation rooms where she meets the very large Honey, the tiny Scarlett, the pockmarked Gordon and others. Knowing that their deaths are imminent, these longtime eco-warriors have decided to use their final moments to confront and confound a government that has declared fostering the natural world a crime.

Williams’s last full-length work, “The Quick and the Dead,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. If you’ve read any of her other books, you’ll know their experimental nature sparks electricity rather than burning readers out, and that’s true in this new, urgent novel as well. Between references to important and sometimes arcane classical literature and deliberately obscure vocabulary (gangrel, yaws, trephined, erlking, carling, to name just a few), “Harrow” insists that readers pay attention to the decline of the natural world. Williams brings up stories that may be imaginary in 2021 — like uteri harvested from brain-dead bodies for rich women’s use — but feel all too probable in the world of “Harrow.”

Unfortunately, this strange plot’s center doesn’t hold. After growing close, Khristen and Jeffrey end up separated, only to be reunited in a new place, where he’s been appointed a judge. (Yes, a 10-year-old judge; it’s less strange than many of the other things going on, so just go with it.) But those scenes almost don’t matter.

What does matter? Pondering the novel’s themes, some of which can be summed up in a question Gordon poses to a fellow resident. “Have you ever reflected on what earth’s advance directive would be. . . . You think she’d want treatment even if there were no cure? Even if treatment only ensured that her dying would be more prolonged? Or do you think she’d ask for comfort care only?”

Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”


By Joy Williams

Knopf. 224 pp. $26