The Quick and the Dead

by Joy Williams
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326

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.

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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 Museum. Sherwin also hints that Alice should consider suicide. Although Alice declares that she loves Sherwin, she quickly begins to tire of him, deeming him a harmful relationship that will help her in her quest to be unusual. Although Sherwin’s goals are often disturbing, Alice does not seem to feel or be threatened by him. At most, Alice reflects that she would not want him to meet Corvus.

The girls begin going on camping trips together. On their first trip, they meet Ray. Ray is a stroke survivor and a drifter. He thinks that a monkey, the one that was used for the research that allowed him to live, lives in the back of his brain. While dragging a bighorn’s corpse through the desert, Ray ends up exhausted beneath the animal’s body. The girls discover him, and Alice assumes that he is poaching. When the girls leave him alone in the desert, Ray feels that the monkey takes over, but he endures and realizes that the monkey has left him forever.

The girls’ next adventure occurs at a nursing home when Corvus begins to volunteer at Green Palms, which Williams describes as a “state-of-the-art End of the Trail.” Alice and Annabel go with her, though Annabel quits before the end of her first hour. Perhaps her leaving is for the best because Green Palms is under investigation for any number of outrages, including suspicion over the meat they serve their patients. It is later revealed that their doctors are highly unqualified.

Alice is able to outtalk most people she meets, but Green Palms’s Nurse Daisy seems immune to Alice’s bold opinions. Whereas Alice is highly concerned about the environment, Nurse Daisy seems devoid of compassion. When she hears a patient screaming, she dismisses Alice’s concern, saying “nothing serious... I know my screams.” However disturbing Nurse Daisy may be, Alice and Corvus continue to volunteer there.

Williams next introduces Emily Bliss Pickless. Emily is eight and is impressively intelligent, though she tries not to let the adults around her know this. Emily’s mother has recently begun dating J.C., who claims that he has a connection to Jesus Christ because they share the same initials. He has also attacked Corvus’s dog. Emily dislikes J.C. and often lies to him, claiming that she cannot read. He lies to her in turn, often lying about what he reads on labels; he is pleased whenever he discovers Emily’s ignorance and tries to further mislead her. Emily proves quite daunting and eventually brings home a box that turns out to be a small bomb. J.C. demands that Emily give him the box and it explodes in his crotch when he tries to open it. The paramedics claim that they can reattach his penis once they find it, but Emily finds it first and pushes it into a lizard’s next.

She next encounters Stumpp, the head of the Wildlife Museum. Stumpp initially meets Emily as she protests his museum for animal cruelty, but he takes a liking to her. As their relationship develops, Stumpp begins to change, firing his taxidermist and eventually closing down his museum because he now sees it as a “charnel house.”

Meanwhile, although Carter’s relationship with Donald is progressing, he is still haunted by Ginger’s ghost. He has begun sleeping in hotels and continues to throw parties. Sherwin returns to play piano but finds himself lost and unhappy there. He leaves the piano and begins to explore the house. He finds Ginger’s ghost. Ginger lures him into a room where he trips and crashes into a mirror, dying. This is the act that excises her spirit.

Corvus continues to retreat from the world, eventually retreating into Green Palms. The next time Alice shows up to volunteer, Daisy denies her entry, saying that she has a bug that will speed the death of those inside. Alice claims that she wants to see Corvus, but Daisy again refuses her, saying that Alice must stop trying to “impose” herself on Corvus and that Corvus now understands “sit in your cell, and your cell will tell you everything.” Alice leaves, frustrated. She meets a group of animal rights protesters more concerned with observing the end of the animal kingdom so that they can light candles than they are concerned with changing the world. Alice leaves and resolves to go to the museum and protest its animal abuse, only to find that it has been closed. She begins to throw rocks at the museum anyway. Emily and Stumpp see Alice as they drive past and Emily reflects that she would not want to be like Alice.

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