(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Honored Guest is Joy Williams's third short fiction collection. After the 1982 publication of her first, Taking Care, she was hailed as a master of the short-story form. Three of the stories in that collection—“Train,” “The Wedding,” and the title story—were chosen by her mentor in the Iowa Writers Workshop, R. V. Cassill, and her so-called minimalist colleagues, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, and Richard Ford, for inclusion in four widely adopted short story anthologies used in colleges and universities across the country during the 1980's. Although Williams's second collection, Escapes (1990), did not generate as many memorable stories, it was very well received by reviewers and other writers. Harold Brodkey called her the most gifted writer of her generation, and William H. Gass said she was the “best at her business”—which most agreed was the business of writing short stories. Williams even won the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story in 1999, which had previously been given to Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, Cynthia Ozick, and Joyce Carol Oates. Over the last fourteen years, only occasional Williams stories have appeared, in Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and some small quarterlies, twelve of which find their way into this new collection.

This does not mean that Williams has not been writing. Her novel The Quick and the Dead (2000), about a teenage radical animal rights advocate and naturalist, was a shocker, filled with violence and poetry. Her collection of essays Ill Nature (2001), subtitled Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, was so filled with righteous wrath against hunters, developers, and other enemies of the natural world that it generated equal rage from those who disagreed with her. Perhaps her best-selling book, which has gone through multiple editions, is a tourist guide titled The Florida Keys: A History and Guide (1987).

The title story of Joy Williams's new collection, which was included inBest American Short Stories, 1995, is a beautiful signature piece for her, not only because it deals with the last few months of her ill mother's life but also because it tenaciously explores what Williams says all art should be about—human apprehension at the approach of nothingness. To live, the young female protagonist in this story understands as she helplessly watches her mother move toward death, is to be like an honored guest in a Japanese aboriginal ritual, in which a bear cub is captured and treated royally for some time, until an inevitable day when the villagers drag it out, torture it, and kill it. In what Williams has called an extremely difficult story for her to write, the mother and daughter in “Honored Guest” try to find a way to cope with life's ultimate absurdity by making it the subject of bitter quips and jokes. In an essay on why she writes in Ill Nature, Williams says during the months before her mother died, she despaired that nothing she had ever written or might ever write could help her mother. Still, she says, the writer writes, “hopelessly in the hope” of serving a “cold and elemental grace.” Williams has said that she prefers the short story to the novel, for the ever-approaching nothingness interests her more than society. The writer does not want to instruct or advocate, says Williams, but rather to “transmute and disturb,” to escape the obligations of her time and, by writing, transcend them. In this regard, Williams seems to share the opinion of the great Marxist critic Georg Lukács, who insisted that, as opposed to the novel, which deals with social issues, the short story is a form that pinpoints the “strangeness and ambiguity of life” and gives nothingness the “consecration of form.”

Williams's short stories are an acquired taste, not easy to like on first reading. Lacking discernible plot, sympathetic characters, or easily digestible themes, her previous stories have been described as quirky, the dictionary definition of which is a sudden sharp twist, a flourish in writing, something unpredictable or unaccountable, a peculiarity that eludes suppression. Although summaries can never do justice to the stories of Joy Williams, a brief description of some of them make it clear that they surely fit these definitions. For example, in “Congress,” a woman develops a loving companionship with a lamp made out of four cured deer feet. In “The Visiting Privilege,” a woman befriends an older lady in a hospital and takes care of her dog after her death—one of those irritating mechanical things that bark when someone...

(The entire section is 1906 words.)