I was a dishwasher working and dating a waitress at a restaurant in Kansas and she gave me three gifts: Mavis Gallant, Amy Hempel, and Joy Williams. I had never heard of any of them before. Hempel and Gallant have made my life a better one, however Joy Williams has for thirteen years has become my paragon, my obscure gift to share.
It’s difficult to describe what her books are about. She recreates the detail oriented distraction of her somnambulant heroines and heroes so well that it is a deeply compelling blur to the reader as well. Her works are marvels either line by line or taken as a whole.
Her characters paint elaborate, powerfully emotional still lives of the world around them-what we take for granted framed artfully. Her characters have an exalted mastery of composition. The details frozen before the swoon. The big things, the people and unseen forces in their, our, lives are so unknowable that we have to cling to these details or have nothing else to hold on to.
Here there is not even wind. There is scarcely any air at all in these woods where Grady and I live. There is no wind or sound and nothing moves. My boy husband lies flat and prim beneath the sheets. He looks two-dimensional. When he opens his eyes, I may find they are painted on his head. Perhaps I can dress him myself, cutting out paper trousers, shirt and Levi jacket, bending the cardboard tabs to pass and cling to his ankles, hips, waist and shoulders. Perhaps I can press some tea down his throat or drive to the coast and place him in the sun. I don’t care to watch him sleeping and always leave the room immediately. It confuses me, his lying there, his mouth dry at the corners, foam from a punctured pillow gathered round his damp cheek.
Time does not move here. I do not change. Only the baby changes. I want to be rid of them all. I want to be rid of this terrible imposition of recall.
One wants and wants . . . I used to lie constantly, but now, I assure you, I’ve stopped.
She has written four novels, three collections of short stories, a book of essays, and a spectacular travel and history guide to the Florida Keys. I was first given State of Grace by the waitress and it was a defining moment in my life, like a moment out of one of Williams’ books. I was just out of college and somewhat mindlessly coasting. A humid summer, working 60 hours a week at multiple jobs and little hope had knocked me for a loop. This book was a revival. This book changed the way I see things, even to this day. It changed what a word, a sentence, could be. I wrote too, or at least I thought I did, and it gave me something to strive for like nothing else has.
Because of this, I look for, buy, and give away State of Grace to promising people I come across along the way. I’ve given away over twenty copies in the past 13 years. It was one of my first librarian acts. The book is a story of a college age woman who flees her incestuous preacher father, and finds herself in Williams’ Florida as a sorority girl and, later, a young wife living in a trailer. An amazing car-crash is the lynchpin of the story. “What?” and then “Wow”, I said aloud as I read the passage four times in a row.
I give the book as a gift and it is a test. Friendships and loves have continued after a negative reaction to this book, but they have not passed the litmus test nor the test of time. Yet I can understand not liking her, often I am scared to read her myself. It can be a lot to take in, to behold.
From State of Grace I moved on to Breaking and Entering, Taking Care, and Escapes-reading them all over and over. However, the missing Holy Grail was her second novel, The Changeling, which had only had one printing after reviews as devastating as the ones for State of Grace were rapturous. I had only read excerpts of the terrible reviews and from them I could tell that this book would be right up my alley. I searched for four years (pre-Internet book dealers, at least as far as I knew) to find this book, scouring bookstores and coming up with only copies of her other books to give away instead. Finally, my friend Johnny, a librarian at the Queens Borough Public Library, found me a copy weeded from their collection.
I had a weekday off when I first got it and I had little money and, perhaps out of fear of what I was getting into, I wanted to get high. I drank a bottle of Robotussin and went from my home in Brooklyn to the city. I went to a Francis Bacon show in Soho and boarded a ferry to Hoboken. I remember being on the ferry and opening the book and being grabbed and throttled. Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten high. It was overwhelming. It was the release day for Bruce Springsteen’s box-set of b-sides and outtakes. I like the Boss okay but these seemed like the real dregs to my cough syrup ears. In Hoboken, every bar I went into was playing these aborted attempts of New Jersey transcendence as I read The Changeling. I alternated between the book and my own notebook as I furiously wrote a Joy Williams knock off, a fist person story of a pregnant woman. Reading Joy I felt like I could know what this was like-what it was to be truly possessed. It was passages like this that made me think such a thing:
This house was her home. It seemed improbable even after all these years. But it was the only one she had unless she could consider her body her home, a disheartening thought-this shabby tower of bones and waters in which she more or less permanently resided, a lonely place and yet one always occupied to say nothing of visited continuously, shared with guests and occupied by travelers, full of tumult and disturbance and greed and sharing. Some visitors lingering only briefly, others staying a long, long time; one guest being fantastic, another quite dull. Prudes and incontinents, mommies and murders, philosophers and mice. The body the home. One could entertain almost any notion there. Poor dump.
Visiting Austin, Texas from New York my best friend, Sara Kitchen, woke me up and asked if I wanted to go get free matching tattoos. Her friend was an apprentice. I had just loaned Sara my copy of The Changeling. We walked downtown and took turns laying down and reading The Changeling while we got rabbits tattooed on our asses.
I told Joy Williams this story when I finally met her. At a Paris Review reading in Manhattan she read and was introduced by George Plimpton. Afterwards, I stood in line waiting for the signing and found myself amongst other Joy Williams fans. I had thought I was the only one. We got giddy and talked about how great The Changeling is and how we had managed to track down a copy. The line for George Plimpton was empty and he held up his new book to us and said “Capote, get your Capote signed”.
I gave her some of my writing as I stutter-babbled on nervously to her. A month later she sent me a nice postcard that I cherish.
Again in New York I found myself with time off and little money so I bought a cheap flight to Tampa and hitchhiked down to Key West. She lived there part of the year and I had managed to get her address. I left her a note and never got a reply. I heard later that she was out of town. So I spent the rest of the time walking around her world, drinking it in. Drinking too much and having strange, haunting conversations with strangers. Running from racists that I didn’t want to hear anymore, I stumbled upon a gospel service on a Friday night and sat on the curb and listened to it while the lizards ran over the street. Going from ocean to gin and back again. I should have brought a radio. But it wasn’t her world anymore, when I met her again she said the Key West she had loved was over. But it was real enough for me for that week.
I later went to Tucson, where she lives the rest of the year, to visit a friend on my 30th birthday. I found Joy in the phone book but chose to leave her alone.
The turn of the century proved productive for Joy as she published three books in three years (The Quick and the Dead, a novel, Ill Nature, a collection of essays about the relationship between humanity and nature, and Honored Guest, a book of short stories) after more than a ten year absence. Many new people have been introduced to her work, her world, and, apparently, gone looking back for more. I still look, but I haven’t found a State of Grace in years. I don’t have anything to give anyone anymore. I love other authors too, but nothing like this.
A couple of years ago when her last book of stories, Honored Guest, came out I was visiting Sara again in Austin. Joy was reading at a Barnes and Noble in the strip-mall outskirts of town. Sara, her boyfriend John and I were the only ones there besides the overenthusiastic store lady and Joy. Joy read and we were able to speak with her for quite a while. She didn’t remember me and I didn’t remind her. I had found a copy of State of Grace to give to my roommate and had her sign it. She asked if I had a hardcover copy of it and I said I didn’t. She was going back to Florida to vote and she would send me a copy. After Thanksgiving I had almost lost hope in her, but then one day in the mail I got it. I got back what I had been giving to everyone else.