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Honored Guest: Stories
Honored Guest: Stories
Joy Williams
Knopf, 2004
224 pp., 32.21

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Sara Miller

Holy Animals

The stories of Joy Williams.

It takes a certain temperament to herald reconciliation on God's holy mountain. It takes hope. One doesn't think of Joy Williams as a writer much given to hope. Those who know her fiction are more likely to remark its fatalism and its outré collection of jaded vagabonds and shallow sophisticates; of uncanny teenagers and preternaturally knowing children; of women who drink too much and think too critically; of the lonely, the broken, the undone.

Williams' cabinet of misfits is often compared to Flannery O'Connor's, and justly so. The comparison with O'Connor goes further, too, as both authors entertain fertile religious themes. But where O'Connor's work is avowedly, if obliquely, redemptive, Williams' is dubiously so. And Williams' sacramentalism, if it can be called that, encompasses nature first and only fitfully leaks back to humanity. Indeed, the most remarkable presence in the work of Joy Williams is neither personal nor transcendental. What sets Williams apart is the animals.

Williams is the author of four novels, the most recent of which, The Quick and the Dead, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. She has penned two highly regarded collections of short stories, a volume of essays, and a book on the Florida Keys, part history and part travel-guide. She lives mainly in Key West. If she can be called a Christian writer—and I think she can—she is the kind who wrestles endlessly with faith and who broods deeply over death and the human condition. There is a word for believers like Williams, and that word is "unconsoled."

Williams is also a brilliant ironist, perhaps peerless, and much admired by other writers for her consummate craft. Of the many qualities of her prose—clarity, economy, intelligence, complete mastery of the sentence—the most conspicuous is authority. Writing for Williams is a truth-telling enterprise, an act of witness, a form of prayer.

In Honored Guest, her most recent collection of stories, all these gifts are on display, along with the usual Williams suspects. Her characters are wholly American, wholly contemporary, and decidedly unlikable. They are hip yet stupid, clever yet wrong, vain in the desert, cruel in Nantucket, clique-ish in friendship, soulless in marriage, selfish in death. They are given to philosophical asides, yet trapped in subdivisions. Williams exposes our social frauds mercilessly, and in this she approaches Oscar Wilde. There are Wildean episodes (a woman actually misplaces her husband at a highway gas stop) and Wildean lines ("She'd like to tell Richard how much she refrained from saying to him, but actually she refrained from saying very little"). There are echoes of Tolstoy, Eudora Welty, and of course O'Connor. Is Williams really this good? In her finest stories, yes. "Congress," "Hammer," "Visiting Privilege," and "Anodyne" are the best of the offerings in Honored Guest, though the other stories have their beatitudes, and their clever bits, and their overpowering grief.

Death haunts this book, and it is for the dead that Williams reserves a special and intimate affection. It is the same intimacy she shares with animals, who figure here as emissaries, or illuminations, of holiness—Williams does not hesitate to suggest they are angels. In these stories, animals comfort, enlighten, suffer and die for us, peripherally. They are fabulous, in the sense that they are granted thoughtfulness, emotion, and intent. They have natural life, but also resurrected life. In the mysterious and haunting story "Congress," a lamp fashioned from deer hooves becomes a woman's boon companion after her husband, a forensic anthropologist, is permanently disabled in a freak (and freakish) hunting accident. "The lamp," Williams tells us,

had eclectic reading tastes. It would cast its light on anything, actually. It liked the stories of Poe. The night before Jack was to return home, they read a little book in which animals offered their prayers to God—the mouse, the bear, the turtle, and so on—and this is perhaps where the lamp and Miriam had their first disagreement. Miriam liked the little verses, but the lamp felt that though the author clearly meant well, the prayers were cloying and confused thought with existence. The lamp had witnessed a smattering of Kierkegaard and felt strongly that thought should never be confused with existence.

To read Williams is often to behold an immaculate, holy world—but it is not the world of men. In "Hammer" she describes a painting of beavers on a lake:

The colors of the landscape were deep and lustrous. The water was a fervent rumpled barren of green, the trees along the curving shore like cloaked messengers. Everything seemed fresh and clean with kind portent, even the sky. God had poured his being in equal measure to all creatures, Angela thought solemnly, to each as much as it could receive. Beavers were peculiar and reclusive, but that was their nature. They were not frivolous beings. They behaved responsibly and gravely and with great fidelity.

The mute and still are also vessels of grace in these stories. Taxidermy specimens, beached whales, and mechanical dogs are treated with the same tenderness as the living, and may even have attained a kind of transfigured blessedness that surpasses living and dying—a condition Williams describes in "Congress" as "beyond all that."

Williams has long been noted as a fierce, some would say frightening, defender of wildlife. Her collection of essays, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, a finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award in 2002, is a withering book, not for sissies or nature sentimentalists. One man's profit is another man's loss, wrote Montaigne. One person's profit is many animals' loss, argues Williams. We are all complicit in the destruction of nature—hunters, developers, latté-drinkers, suv drivers, preservationists, progressives—and everyone alive is trespassing on the lives of animals. Her accusations are scathing, one feels blamed reading them, sorry to have existed at all, yet the passion of the assault and the unrelenting sarcasm of the invective are dazzling. Even her cadences are blows:

Zoos are pretty, contained, and accessible. These new habitats can contain one hundred different species—not more than one or two of each thing, of course—on seven acres, three, one.

But Ill Nature also prescribes, and it does so in deliberately biblical tones:

Have few desires and simple pleasures. Honor non-human life. Control yourself, become more authentic. Live lightly upon the earth and treat it with respect. Redefine the word progress and dismiss the managers and masters. Grow inwardly and with knowledge become truly wiser. Think differently, behave differently. For this is essentially a moral issue we face, and moral decisions must be made.

The question to ask about this call to conversion is why? Animals are part of the answer, and they can be an occasion for conversion, but it is not for the sake of nature that we grow inwardly and become wiser. It is not for ecological balance that we refuse death. Animals are innocent; only humans can become holy. Morality, especially Christian morality, must explain why this is so. If earth is the last place, and death is the last word, then all our philosophy and religion is dilettantish at best.

In the title story in Honored Guest, a hairdresser tells her teenaged client the Japanese folktale of the bear cub who was nursed by humans, raised as a member of the tribe, respected by villagers as an "honored guest," until one day according to custom it was tortured and sacrificed. As in all fairy tales and folktales, the easy congress between human and animal is brought up sharply by worldly reality, and by nature itself. Transfiguration never lasts. But to this seemingly self-evident fable the teen retorts, "Was there something more to it than that? Did something come after that?" The remark is a typically Williamsesque one, querulous, contrarian, and slightly obtuse. Yet if it is naïve it is also intuitive. The materialist demands an explanation from the manifest world. The reformer demands justice. The believer demands redemption.

The stories in Honored Guest have got as far as grace and transfiguration. But they stop shy of redemption. It may be that Joy Williams does not quite believe in redemption, at least for mere humanity. Some holiness does attend to those Williams characters who carry mortality lightly yet responsibly, who are wounded but not therefore cruel, who are afflicted but do not despair—a caretaker named Carl, an ex-con named Deke, a lovelorn gardener, a bereaved brother, a farsighted marksman. But they are sympathetic only by default. The gift of nobility, of willed and intelligent sacrifice, of fidelity to life and courage in the face of death—these are all on the side of animals. That is unfortunate. Joy Williams' stories are illuminating, burning, intelligent, and large, but there is nowhere in them to lay the human heart.

Sara Miller's reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Century, and elsewhere.

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