(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Joy Williams is a short-story writer with a dark vision encased in a clean prose style. While a few of her stories have an experimental, almost surrealistic form, and often a wry, ironic tone, the bulk fall into what can be called the realist mode, minimalist division: Williams deals with American family life in the last third of the twentieth century, focusing on troubles, handicaps, and incompletions. She interests readers in these subjects without divulging all the information that they might ordinarily want or need about the characters and their situations. What further distinguishes her stories is a prose 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.

Hers is not a reassuring portrait of contemporary American life. The families are often dysfunctional, physically as well as psychologically: parents abandon children, by leaving or by dying, and children wander in life without guidance. Alcohol is a cause of the unhappiness as well as its hoped-for cure. In nearly all her stories, love is being sought but is 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 state, physical or emotional. Disabilities, addictions, dead animals, arguments in restaurants, and car accidents abound in Williams’s stories.

Williams’s first collection Taking Care contains stories published in the 1970’s and early 1980’s in The New Yorker, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Esquire, Ms., and other leading vehicles of contemporary American fiction. These stories show a firmness and subtlety that have marked Williams’s style over her entire career (although there was probably more range here than in her second collection). The themes that would mark that career are clearly established in this first collection. While many of the stories are riveting in their subject matter, they leave readers with a sense of hollowness and futility. There are few resolutions in Williams, even early in her career, but there are the tensions, violence, and disconnections that mark most of her stories.

“Taking Care”

In the title story, Jones, a preacher, is “taking care” of two generations: a wife dying of leukemia and a six-month-old baby girl whom his daughter has left him to care for before fleeing to Mexico. Jones baptizes his granddaughter and then brings his wife back from the hospital; in the last line of the story, “Together they enter the shining rooms”—rooms made “shining” by Jones’s love and care. This epiphanic ending, however, cannot erase all the abandonment and death. Jones is surely “taking care” of more than his required load in this life, and there is a heaviness, a spiritual sadness, that is expressed appropriately in Williams’s flat, terse prose style.

Other stories in Taking Care have similar themes and forms. In “Traveling to Pridesup,” three sisters in their eighties and nineties, “in a big house in the middle of Florida,” find a baby abandoned in a feed bag on their mailbox. In the journey in their old Mercedes to find someone to help, Lavinia gets them lost, drives hundreds of miles in circles, and finally crashes. In a tragicomic mix reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, the story ends with a painful revelation, “the recognition that her life and her long, angry journey through it, had been wasteful and deceptive and unnecessary.”

“Winter Chemistry,” features two students who spy on their teacher every night and inadvertently kill him when they are caught. “Shepherd” concerns a young woman who cannot get over the death of her German shepherd and who will probably lose her boyfriend because of it. (“‘We are all asleep and dreaming, you know,’” he tells her in a speech that might apply to characters in other stories in Taking Care. “‘If we could ever actually comprehend our true position, we would not be able to bear it, we would have to find a way out.’”) In “The Farm,” alcohol, infidelities, and the accidental killing of a hitchhiker will destroy the central couple. “Breakfast,” too, has many of the stock Williams ingredients: parents who abandon their children, a half-blind dog, and characters who are both alcoholic and lacking direction.

Possibly the only difference in Taking Care from Williams’s later fiction is that there appears to be more humor in these early stories, and more effort by Williams to perfect a wry, ironic style. (“The Yard Boy,” for example, is a surreal caricature of a kind...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)