(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The author of three novels and a nonfictional book about the Florida Keys, Joy Williams is also one of the most gifted short story writers working in the United States, and this second gathering of her stories—Taking Care (1981) was her highly regarded first collection—only confirms her skill and power. The stories in Escapes have been gathered from previous magazine publication over a period of more than a decade; in addition, five of the twelve stories here have also been collected in The Best American Short Stories (1978, 1985, 1986, 1987) and Prize Stories 1988: The 0 Henry Awards (1988).

Two of the stories here have an experimental, almost surreal quality (“Gurdjieff in the Sunshine State” and “The Route”), but the bulk of the rest fall into what can be called the realist mode, minimalist division: Williams deals with American family life in the second half of the twentieth century, focusing on troubles, handicaps, incompletions. She interests readers in these subjects, however, without divulging all the information they might ordinarily want or need about the characters and their situations. What further distinguishes her stories is a style that is clean but highly metaphorical, for the images and motifs of the stories often carry the meaning more deeply than the action or exposition.

The families portrayed in Escapes are often dysfunctional, physically as well as psychologically: Parents abandon children, by leaving or by dying, and children die in their early years, or are seriously ill. Younger women are married to men much older or have had multiple marriages. Alcohol is a cause of the unhappiness or its hoped-for cure. In nearly all the stories, love is being sought but rarely found, and nearly as rarely expressed. Characters seem unable to ask the questions that might free them from their unhappiness; the best they can hope for is an escape to some other stale, physical or emotional. Amputees, addictions, and car accidents abound.

In the title story that opens the collection, these elements are everywhere. A young girl narrates a story of the time when her alcoholic mother, abandoned by the father, took her to see a magician but, drunk, wandered onto the stage and had to be physically removed. The story is about layers of “escapes”: of the father, who obviously escaped this dysfunctional family; of magicians who are able to create the illusion of escapes (“Houdini was more than a magician, he was an escape artist”); of the mother, who escapes the present through alcohol; and of the daughter, who dreams of an escape herself.

What is characteristic of Williams’ stories is not just this bleak view of human nature—people trapped and searching for some inexpressible transcendence—but a prose style that is both less and more than it appears. It is less because, like other minimalists Williams resembles (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie), she only sketches out the outline of the action here: Readers learn little if anything about the background of the characters, where they come from, what they do to support themselves, or what relationships they have to one another. (Why did the father in “Escapes” leave? How is the mother supporting herself and her daughter?) The spotlight falls on immediate foreground action, but the background, which might illuminate the present, is dark.

Yet, at the very same time, Williams manipulates metaphors and motifs in such a way that they carry a heavy weight in the stories. In “Escapes,” for example, the magic trick of a woman sawed in half becomes an image of the story’s meaning. The mother tells her daughter “how I wanted to be that lady, sawed in half, and then made whole again!” in the Houdini...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)