Although she has published four novels, Joy Williams is most celebrated for her short fiction. She has often been anointed as the literary heir to Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor, but Williams’s voice is most emphatically her own. Her stories begin realistically enough, then permute into hallucinatory fairy tales, as grim as anything in Grimm, but also grimly funny.
Some adjective, as proprietary as “Kafkaesque,” is needed for stories in which murder, addiction and madness are discussed so dispassionately. The pieces are chilling, but never smug about their own seriousness. There is deep pleasure to be had, and a kind of explosive surprise, in Williams’s unflinching alchemy.
Her new book, “The Visiting Privilege,” combines 33 stories from her previous books, with 13 previously uncollected. All are spooky and unsentimental, in the Williams style. Read straight through, this massive book feels like a series of case studies requiring “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” but that is probably not the optimal approach. Better to dip into the stories more slowly, maybe not even sequentially, getting lost in the characters’ melancholy as the characters themselves are lost — displaced as their minds “ran stumbling, panting, through dark twisted woods.”
Many of the stories concern grief: widows and widowers, parents losing children, children losing parents. One father dies in the electric chair, another in a freak scuba diving accident. Some characters are institutionalized, and some just wander off. A support group forms for the mothers of murderers. The drinking is heavy — many horribly sad happy hours — although, as one character correctly notes, people are “all so desperate. You couldn’t attribute their behavior to alcohol alone.”
There are tons of dogs, as well as bears and deer and wolves, hunted and tortured. Williams has published a collection of animal and environmental essays, “Ill Nature,” and in these stories the human race’s casually cruel relationship to animals is on bold display. People who hit dogs with their cars do not tend to stop. One woman reminisces about an old hobby of catching and drowning cats.
“Animals are closer to God than we,” one character contends. Like the stray dogs, God glimmers at the borders of these lives. “Taking Care,” one of Williams’s best-known stories, concerns a pastor, “gaunt with belief,” who has inherited his daughter’s baby and is also nursing a dying wife. The characters give quite a bit of thought to the question of what happens to us in the beyond. “People had written books about death. No one knew what they were talking about, of course.”
Indeed, although the stories often have titles like “Charity” or “Shepherd” that suggest biblical significance, they never offer any of the coded messages about grace that O’Connor provides. One dying woman accuses her daughter by saying that “if Jesus walked into this house this minute, you wouldn’t even raise your eyes.”
Williams, the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, seems more aligned with the Christian existentialists. (In a typical bit of Williams whimsy, it is a lamp made from amputated deer’s feet that admiringly quotes Kierkegaard.) Instead of offering parables, Williams asks us to join the characters in a liminal space where they “feel very much the weight of this moment, which seems without resolution.”
The title story concerns a woman who is visiting her friend in a mental institution. Donna doesn’t offer a lot of comfort. “We’re all alone in a meaningless world. That’s it. OK?” To which her friend retorts, “That’s so easy for you to say!” Donna loves the hospital — an odd reaction to a place where patients are gouging each other’s eyeballs with spoons — and overstays her welcome. “She could not go forward. Then, she couldn’t go back.”
In “The Little Winter,” a 40-year-old woman dying of a brain tumor abducts her friend’s child and steals a puppy. Things do not go well for anyone on this road trip, as the kidnapped girl is the first to complain: “I thought this would be a more mystical experience. I thought you’d tell me something. You don’t even know about makeup.”
Much of the humor in Williams’s dialogue comes from the deadpan pronouncements of precocious children, but indeed everyone, from hotel clerks to hairdressers, is prone to profound proclamation. “How can I save you from your innocence and foolishness and delusions,” demands a car mechanic in “Rot.” The old T-bird, in this case, is deemed not worth repairing, so its owner parks it in their living room, and he and his wife just sit in it, going nowhere, as time reveals itself to be “lurching in a circle like some poisoned, damaged thing.”
The superb new stories don’t mark a radical departure in style or subject matter from previous work, although the characters tend to be older, and the structures a little looser, more meditative. In the harrowing “Cats and Dogs,” a woman visits her parents, who live in adjoining assisted living facilities, then begins to dispose of their real estate, all of which is haunted. Another daughter watches her failing mother try to construct an elaborate structure for an endangered species of tortoise, which ultimately does not arrive. “However fortunate your life or — considering the myriad grotesque ways one can depart from it — your death, it’s usually strangers who have their hands on you at the end,” the daughter says.
Williams is unrivaled in her depiction of a profound, inarticulate, almost painterly loneliness. Doesn’t matter whether the characters are jauntily off joyriding or stuck in hallways, in wheelchairs, in dementia wards. Ultimately, they’re alone, although there’s something to be said for the companionship of a good dog.
Remembering a cherished German shepherd with its “exuberance, energy, dignity” makes one woman recall when “life seemed slow and joyous. . . . She remembered the shepherd and remembered being, herself, good. She lived aware of happiness.”
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University at Camden.
By Joy Williams
Knopf. 490 pp. $30