The Quick and the Dead

Joy Williams

Published by Vintage, 2002
ISBN 10: 0375727647 / ISBN 13: 9780375727641
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Synopsis: A Pulitzer Prize Finalist

From one of our most heralded writers--Joy Williams belongs, James Salter has written, "in the company of Céline, Flannery O'Connor, and Margaret Atwood"--her first novel in more than a decade: the life-and-death adventures of three misfit teenagers in the American desert.

Alice, Corvus, and Annabel, each a motherless child, are an unlikely circle of friends. One filled with convictions, another with loss, the third with a worldly pragmatism, they traverse an air-conditioned landscape eccentric with signs and portents--from the preservation of the living dead in a nursing home to the presentation of the dead as living in a wildlife museum--accompanied by restless, confounded adults. A father lusts after his handsome gardener even as he's haunted (literally) by his dead wife; a heartbroken dog runs afoul of an angry neighbor; a young stroke victim drifts westward, his luck running from worse to awful; a sickly musician for whom Alice develops an attraction is drawn instead toward darker imaginings and solutions; and an aging big-game hunter finds spiritual renewal through his infatuation with an eight-year-old--the formidable Emily Bliss Pickless. With nature thoroughly routed and the ambiguities of existence on full display, life and death continue in directions both invisible and apparent. Gloriously funny and wonderfully serious, The Quick and the Dead limns the vagaries of love, the thirst for meaning, and the peculiar paths by which all creatures are led to their destiny.

A panorama of contemporary life and an endlessly surprising tour de force: penetrating and magical, ominous and comic, this is the most astonishing book yet in Joy Williams's illustrious career.

Review: Don't read Joy Williams if you're looking for Oprah-style stories of redemption--stories in which the human spirit triumphs. And don't look to her for a mirror of reality; with this author, there's never the sense that "I've been there" or "I identify." Williams creates novels and stories that operate under a tightly wound surrealist aesthetic. She distorts the world, but her distortions are subtle enough that you don't see them coming. You can't predict when the logic of dream will take over the logic of the text. Like the filmmaker David Lynch, Williams sees pathology and the ominous everywhere; she renders a world that looks familiar but is slightly off. Like Don DeLillo, she's a sprawling, ambitious writer whose characters often talk in a lovely, unbelievable poetry, as if they were prophets, or preachers, or ghosts.

The Quick and the Dead, Williams's fourth novel, follows a series of linked stories, all taking place in Arizona. Indeed, it could be called a desert epic, so dependent is its narrative momentum on the desert's eventual consumption of its inhabitants. These characters are consumed by thirst and mirages, by dry dreams of a lifeless landscape. They reside in a state of spiritual flatness and emptiness.

At the heart of the book, three motherless teenage girls befriend each other, go on camping trips, lay out in the sun by the rich girl's pool. Corvus, Alice, and Annabel are, respectively, spooky, apocalyptic, and prom-queen vain. In the course of things, they encounter, among others, a gay piano player named Sherwin who lives in a smelly apartment and constantly wears a tux, and a retirement-home nurse who entertains her patients with one-liners like: "Thoughts are infusorial" and "The set trap never tires of waiting." Perhaps most memorable is a cowboy-hatted stroke victim called Ray who believes a monkey lives in the back of his brain. Ray hitchhikes and steals credit cards. When he hasn't eaten for a while, the animal takes over: "The little monkey was climbing the walls in his head, making clear that it wanted out. Any avenue along the capillaries would do. There was an awful craving to get out. Ray didn't feel well."

Other lively phenomena interrupting the prevailing desert stillness: an injured deer leaping over a fence into a swimming pool in the middle of a party; a man shot in the desert by a couple of stoned guys shooting at cacti; a reappearing ghost called Ginger (Annabel's mother) who arrives every night to rail at her alcoholic widower husband, berating his clothes and his investment strategies.

In the hands of a lesser artist these various, often forcefully bizarre characters and events could have seemed like the work of someone out to impress with her weirdness. But Williams is the real thing, and The Quick and the Dead is her visionary world--a place so unmistakably doomed, it literally gives you the chills. --Emily White

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Title: The Quick and the Dead
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: 2002
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Used: Good

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