Cover image for The quick and the dead
The quick and the dead
Williams, Joy.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred Knopf, 2000.
Physical Description:
307 pages ; 25 cm
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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 Deadlimns 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.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

"The dead are coming back. And it had to do with the diminishment of everything else." Williams, masterful short-story writer (Escapes, 1990) and novelist (Breaking and Entering, 1988), has set her parody of modern life in that quintessential land of barrenness, the desert, and peopled it with characters drawn to death in some way or another. The three central characters--perpetually mourning Corvus, lively but somewhat shallow Annabel, and socially conscious Alice--have all lost their mothers. Corvus is so defined by her loss that she surrounds herself with death, devoting much of her time to volunteering at the local nursing home. Annabel misses her mother, Ginger, but it is Annabel's father, Carter, that Ginger misses. In some of the most humorous scenes in the book, Ginger returns as a ghost to plague her befuddled husband, who finds her more alive in death than she was in life. As for Alice, confronted with the new symbol of social consciousness, the candlelight vigil, a character tells her that "concern is the new consumerism." For Alice, whose convictions and sentiments are genuine, it's the ultimate horror. Like the world her characters inhabit, Williams' novel is rough terrain, but it's well worth the trip. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

"This was no place to be tonight for any of them, but this was the place they were." Set in the Texas desert, the first new fiction in 10 years from the much-praised Williams (States of Grace) examines the thoughts and hopes of three motherless 16-year-old girls, exploring their connections to one another, to a large cast of difficult adults and to the ghosts that populate their lives. Williams's first chapters introduce her three protagonistsÄbeautiful, grief-stricken Corvus; zealous Alice, always looking for "something that would give her a little edge or obscure the edge she already had, she didn't know which"; and Annabel, whose preoccupations with skincare and sweaters seems practical by comparison. Around this trio, other characters form a web of dependence, trust and mistrustÄa web repeatedly broken by sudden violence. Annabel's father, Carter, lusts after his young Buddhist gardener, but carries on drunken, hostile conversations with the vindictive ghost of his dead wife. There's also stroke victim Ray Webb, a poetic young drifter; Sherwin, a piano player with a death wish; wealthy and bored big-game hunter Stumpp and the object of his affections, precocious and articulate eight-year-old Emily. All of Williams's people have lost something important, and all of them are spending time and energy with people they would not have chosen. Williams's psychology is subtle, her attention to teen diction superb. Like the Midwestern novelist Wright Morris, Williams gives her detailed, poetic novel an episodic, meandering structure, and the book ends without much resolution. But these are deliberate choices, made by an artist attentive to real people's psychesÄand to how even our smallest decisions matter to others in ways we may never know. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Stories about disoriented teens are about as cliched as the phrase a dime a dozen, so one approaches this new offering by Williams with trepidation, regardless of her reputation (she is the author of several highly regarded books of fiction, including Breaking and Entering, as well as a celebrated guidebook, The Florida Keys). It is therefore a pleasure to report that the writing here is fresh and originalDfar richer than the circumstances of the characters themselvesDand the story affecting. Williams's heroines include slightly stunned but determined Alice, who lives with her father and grandparents and plots revenge against a nasty woman who refuses to pay her for baby sitting; cool Corvus, whose parents drowned freakishly; and Annabel, the new girl in this Southwestern town, who is also motherless. Nothing grand happens here, but as the girls circle around one another, they draw in other characters, and collectively these lives reveal that somehow we all survive. A fine choice for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/00.]DBarbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The winter had not brought rain and there were no flowers, there would be no flowers. Still, the land in the spring of the year when Alice would turn sixteen could not be said to be suffering from drought. The desert knew no drought, really. Anything so habitual and prolonged was simply life--a life invisible and anticipatory. What was germinative would only remain so that spring. What was possible was neither dead nor alive. Relief had been promised, of course.         For more than a month now, after school, Alice had been caring for six-year-old fraternal twins, Jimmy and Jacky. They lived with their mother, who was away all day, cutting hair. Their father was off in another state, building submarines. Hair, submarines, it was disgusting, Alice thought. She did not find the children at all interesting. They cried frequently, indulged themselves in boring, interminable narratives, were sentimental and cruel, and when frustrated would bite. They had a pet rabbit that Alice feared for. She made them stop giving it baths all the time and tried to interest them in giving themselves baths, although in this she was not successful. She assisted them with special projects for school. It was never too early for investigative reporting. They should not be dissuaded by their teacher's discomfort; to discomfort teachers was one's duty. They were not too young to be informed about the evils of farm subsidies, monoculture, and overproduction. They should know, if only vaguely at first, about slaughterhouses. They shouldn't try to learn everything at once--they'd probably get discouraged--but they should know how things come into being, like ponies, say, and how they're taken out of being and made into handbags and coats. They should get a petition going to stop the lighting of athletic fields, since too much light obliterated the night sky. Excessive light was bad. On the other hand, some things perceived as bad were good. Wasps, for instance. They should not destroy the wasp nest they discovered in their garage with poisons because wasp-nest building was fun to watch in a time-lapse photography sort of way. They should marvel at the wasps' architectural abilities, their insect awareness of a supreme future structure they alone were capable of creating. Wasps were cool. The queens knew how to subsist in a state of cryogenic preservation in the wintertime. Jimmy and Jacky could get special credit for their understanding of wasps, agribusiness, slaughterhouses--just to name a few possibilities.She was willing to make learning interesting for them.         But she didn't help much with homework. Mostly the three of them just hung out. Little kids didn't instinctively know how to hang out, Alice was surprised to learn. Sometimes they'd walk down to the Goodwill store and see the kind of stuff people had wanted once but didn't want anymore. She usually didn't buy anything because she didn't believe in consumption, but once she bought a nun in a snow dome. The nun was only fifty cents because the snow had turned brown and clotted and fell in revolting clumps when you turned the thing upside down. What was a nun doing in one of those snow domes anyway? Alice had never seen anything like it. The twins had never seen anything like it either. But Goodwill was only good for once or twice a week. The rest of the time they'd sit around in these tiny plastic chairs the boys had in their junk-filled room and Alice would discuss things with them, chiefly environmental concerns. Alice liked talking about animals and excess packaging. She opened their small eyes to the world of drift nets, wetland mitigation, predator control, and overpopulation. She urged them to discuss the overpopulation problem with their mother. Sometimes their attention wandered. They had a bunk bed in their room, and they both slept on the bottom bunk. When they were seven, they'd be permitted to sleep on the top bunk. They could hardly wait.         Their mother hadn't paid Alice yet, and near the end of the second month Alice asked for her money.         "Yes, yes, sure," the mother said. "I have to go to the bank tomorrow. How about Saturday?"         She appeared Saturday morning at Alice's house in her big sloppy station wagon. Alice and her granny and poppa were sitting on the patio drinking coffee and watching the birds at the feeder. Actually, only Alice was watching the birds, since her granny and poppa were talking avidly about compost. Alice couldn't talk about compost so early in the morning, but they could. Compost was as munificent as God to them, just as interesting as God certainly. They said that the reason healthy plants repel pests is that they have such intense vibrations in the molecules of their cells. The higher the state of health, the higher the vibrations. Because pests' vibrations are on a much lower level, they receive a distinct shock when they come into contact with a healthy plant.         Why not? Alice thought.         Alice sauntered down to the station wagon, which was packed with luggage. "You taking a trip?" she asked.         "Didn't Jimmy and Jacky tell you? Oh, that's right, I swore them to secrecy. Let's go out and have some breakfast. I'll buy you a donut."         The mother gave Alice the creeps. She wore large, shapeless dresses she called her "jelly bags."         "I've had my breakfast," Alice said.         "I'd like to talk to you," the woman said. "Breakfast really isn't necessary. Why don't we go out to the state park--that's a nice ride."         Alice looked back at the patio, but her granny and poppa had gone inside. She shrugged and got into the car. Cars had never charmed her, and this one seemed particularly vile. They sped off to the park about fifteen miles away. The lovely, lovely mountains tumbled across the horizon.         The kids' mother moved one big arm and groped around in the backseat. The car veered down the road, Alice staring stoically ahead, until she retrieved what she was after, a cocktail in a can. "Want a pop?" she said. Alice shook her head. "Sure?" the woman said. "It's mostly fruit juices."         I want . . . a scar, Alice thought. A scar that would send shivers up peoples' spines but would not elicit pity. She didn't want that kind of scar.         "Where are Jimmy and Jacky?" Alice finally said.         "With a babysitter."         Alice looked at her.         "I'm trying out somebody new just for the morning, then we're leaving. Back to the husband. We're going to be a family again."         "You owe me three hundred dollars," Alice said.         "I do? Those hours added up, didn't they?"         "Do you want a receipt for tax purposes?"         "I'd love a receipt," the mother said.         They entered the park. A small deceased animal was lying in the road, and the car ahead of them ran over it. They ran over it. A herd of men in fluorescent shorts jogged by.         "God, I hate this place," the woman said. She rummaged in the backseat for another pop.         "Why did we come here, then?"         "I mean the whole place, the state."         She turned abruptly into a parking lot. There were some benches and a few little structures for shade. She turned off the ignition and got out of the car. "Gotta tinkle," she said. Alice sat and gazed at the mountains. When you climbed, you'd move from cholla to juniper and pinyon, then to firs and aspens. Zero to eight thousand feet in forty miles. To live in a place where you could do something like that was sensational, like living exceptionally fast or living in two different bodies. The little animals of the desert didn't know that the little animals of the mountains, only moments away, even existed. Or the big animals the big animals for that matter.         Alice looked around the littered seat for paper and pencil to compose her bill, her legs sticking to the stinking vinyl of the car seat. She got out and stood in the shade. A tinkle, she thought. The awful woman was probably taking a dump. At last she and her jelly bag appeared. She had red hair today, though sometimes it was chestnut. She was a genius with hair color, there was no denying that.         "You know what keeps going through my head?" the woman said, "DAK's incredible blowout price. . . . We're getting a new stereo. Can't get it out of my head."         Alice handed her the bill she'd tallied. "It's in crayon, unfortunately, but I'm sure it will be acceptable. You could give me a check, though I'd prefer cash."         "That's what's going through your head, huh, like DAK's incredible blowout price?" The woman laughed and dropped the piece of paper to the ground. "If you think I'm paying you, you're crazy. Pervert. Bitch. You'd better watch out."         Alice looked at the piece of paper. What was wrong with it? It just lay there.         "My boys say you say the world would be better off without them. They say you killed a pony and a farmer and that you make them eat lettuce-and-rabbit-pellet sandwiches. They say you hate nuns and say not to flush the toilet every time when it's only yellow water. But it was the wasp nest that did it. I'm excessively susceptible to the stings of bees and wasps and could go into anaphylactic reaction and die. And they shrieked at me when I sprayed the damn thing. It was as big as a beer keg. They cursed me for destroying a thing that could have killed their own mother."         "Fatal anaphylactic reaction is actually rare," Alice said.         "Half the stuff they told me is even on the list."         "What list?" Alice said. Her voice sounded peculiar. You could give me a check, though I'd prefer cash kept sliding through her mind.         "The checklist of symptoms of satanic ritual abuse compiled by an after-midnight radio psychologist who's a nationally recognized authority on the subject. The list includes but is not limited to preoccupation with feces and death, questionable acting out, talk of mutilation and dismemberment, and fear of being normal and cooperative." She ticked them off on her fingers.         "Why, that's just stupid," Alice said.         "You're the one who's stupid, dumbass," the woman said, "thinking I'd pay for your time. I've got better things to do with my money."         "Jimmy and Jacky misinterpreted my remarks a little," Alice said. It was probably the hair and submarine emphasis in their background that made them somewhat wobbly in the comprehension department.         "You'd better watch it," the woman said. "Get away from me." Alice hadn't moved. "You'd better watch it," she said again, laughing, as she got into the station wagon. Then she drove away.         A black bird, a phainopepla, rocketed past and alighted on a trembling mesquite bush. Alice felt that the desert was looking at her, that it kept coming closer, incuriously. She stared into the distance, seeing it as something ticking, something about to arrive. A brief, ferocious wind came up and a Styrofoam cup sailed by and impaled itself upon an ocotillo. She started back toward the park's entrance, walking not along the road but through the desert itself. Cars and vans occasionally passed by. Tiny heads were what she saw, behind closed windows. She walked quickly, sometimes breaking into a run, through the gulleys and over the rocks, past the strange growths, all living their starved, difficult lives. Everything had hooks or thorns. Everything was saw-edged and spiny-pointed. Everything was defensive and fierce and determined to live. She liked this stuff. It all had a great deal of character. At the same time, it was here only because it had adapted to the circumstances, the external and extreme circumstances of its surroundings.         Plants were lucky because when they adapted it wasn't considered a compromise. It was more difficult for a human being, a girl. Excerpted from The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.