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A Haunting Tale To Judge 'The Quick And The Dead'

In 2000 I was a 23-year-old fledgling writer. I had no idea how to write a story but wanted to do nothing else.

For one semester, Joy Williams — whose short-story collection Taking Care I'd long admired — was my teacher. With cutting precision and candor she tore into our drafts. Her clarity of vision, as writer and teacher both, astonished me.

It was not an easy experience, but it was an electric one. Her criticisms (there were plenty) made the most luminous wounds. I felt seen by her critiques: they were brisk, ego-less, and exactly right. (One letter concluded: "It seems I have criticized all your methods of telling this story; indeed, I believe they're all errant.") And her occasional praise felt like none I'd ever received: miraculous. "Fiction," she told us, "must be cold, cold, cold." I left that class shivering with excitement. I never saw her again.

Soon after, Williams published her fourth novel, The Quick and the Dead. It may be her best. This cold, cold, cold book creates exhilarating heat. Williams examines the strangest and ugliest parts of her characters. She shines hard light on their basest needs, weirdest quirks, and most demented spiritual quests.

The book follows a ragtag bunch, including three motherless daughters, a man haunted by his dead wife, a taxidermist and the eight-year-old girl he reveres. There's a mood of absurdity, anarchy, looming destruction, hyper-real horror and comedy. As the characters connect and disconnect, as they yell at one another and negotiate with one another, a spellbinding world comes into focus. The dialogue always crackles. Here's orphaned teenage Alice and adult Sherwin sitting together at a restaurant:

"You ever notice I got a glass eye?" Sherwin asked.

"No," Alice said.

"Pretty interesting, huh?"

"No," Alice said. "You don't have a glass eye. Both of them move."

"That's because it's on a coral fragment. There's a real piece of coral back there that the muscles are attached to, so it can swing around a little bit. A little piece of coral from America's only living reef tract off Marathon, Florida."

"You can't take coral in the Florida keys," Alice said. "It's a crime. A felony!"

"A felony!" Sherwin said.

"A misdemeanor, then. It should be a felony."

"My God, she'd deprive me of an eye."

The whole books is as brisk, funny, uncanny. We get a sense of something truly alive between, not merely inside, the characters. Though Williams spares her characters no pain, the overall effect is deeply compassionate. It's ultimately a kind of love, this coldness. To gaze as she does, to remove layers of socialization, to show us the bizarreness beneath, we need a brilliant and detached guide. This is us, Williams seems to say, These are our subterranean selves. The pleasures and pains of this book are vast. I refused to look away, even when I wanted to.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Amelia Salutz.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah Braunstein