Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead introduces a varied cast of characters, but the author mostly structures her story around the experiences of three teenage girls who have lost their mothers. Set against the barren desert of Arizona, The Quick and the Dead explores the boundary between life and death. Williams employs a subtle plot, which allows her to focus on the journeys of her unusual characters.

Alice has never met her mother and father. Instead, she lives with her elderly grandparents. Alice at first appears to be an independent, confident young woman. She strongly believes in animal rights and often reminds meat-eating strangers that their food once had a face. She claims that she wants to become an anarchist and live with a “savage glitter.”

Alice’s friend Corvus has recently lost her mother. Whereas Alice is outgoing in her confidence, Corvus has a silent strength. Although Corvus does not explicitly state her grief, it is revealed indirectly. Her dog, Thomas, spends his days howling in grief and Corvus begins to withdraw from the world. Her school attendance becomes erratic and she moves her Airstream trailer deeper away from her neighbors so that her dog’s howling will raise fewer complaints.

Annabel is not from Arizona. She and her father have moved to the desert from Florida after Annabel’s mother, Ginger, was run over and killed. Like Alice, Annabel is bold and intelligent, but she is strikingly materialistic. In fact, she finds Alice’s radical opinions annoying and reflects that she would like to make Alice cry. She would not have met Alice except that her father, Carter, introduced them after discovering that they go to the same school.

Annabel hates Arizona and would not have moved but for Carter. Carter did not want to deal with the repercussions of Ginger’s death. Consequently, he had Ginger cremated very quickly. Next, Carter had his family’s possessions shipped to their new home in Arizona, but he is disappointed to find his wife’s objects were also shipped. Although Carter does not remember his wife fondly, he seems to be struggling with her death, particularly through his alcoholism. He becomes attracted to his gardener, Donald.

As Carter and Donald begin to explore their relationship, Carter finds himself haunted by his deceased wife. Ginger appears in Carter’s bedroom, making fun of him. She mocks his attraction to Donald and often asks Carter to join her in the afterlife. Carter begins exploring ways to excise his wife’s ghost. He resolves to throw a party.

Alice, Annabel, and Corvus attend the party. Alice forms a relationship with the pianist, Sherwin. Up to this point, Alice has fabricated a story about a boyfriend who is in jail for as yet undetermined reasons. However, Alice is deeply attracted to Sherwin, though she is not entirely sure why. Their relationship is not a healthful one. Sherwin has had a face-lift to appear younger than his age, but he is considerably older than Alice is. When they meet at diners or in Sherwin’s apartment, they discuss art and philosophy. In contrast to Alice, Sherwin often expresses hedonistic and nihilistic opinions and mocks her advocacy of animal rights and her condemnation of the Wildlife...

(The entire section is 1326 words.)