Domenica Ruta is the author of With or Without You.
I worked as a bookstore cashier for six weeks, until the day my manager rebuked me for reading. The store was empty and I was standing behind the register when she ripped a paperback out of my hands.
“You look like you have nothing to do.”
“I was reading,” I said, the only sensible response to such a ludicrous indictment. I was actually hoping a customer would come in so I could hold forth on the very book she’d pried away from me.
It was The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. The paperback edition I had bought — with my 38 percent employee discount — bears my favorite cover in the whole of American fiction. The bottom third features a pit of snakes slithering out from their nest hidden in the brush. It’s an ominous, exhilarating scene that evokes the last days of Eden. Above them in the remaining blank space, the gold talons and spindly legs of an invisible bird alight upon a free-floating tree branch. What kind of bird is? And what happened? Did it just vanish? Was it erased? Eradicated? The Quick and the Dead is a novel that asks many more questions than it ventures to resolve, a quality that inspired total trust in me as a reader.
The sprawling multinarrative centers around teenage Alice and the improbable trinity of girls with whom she associates for one strange summer. To call Alice, Corvus and Annabel friends is careless; they are girls of the same age, girls without mothers, a tiny coven yoked to each other by the cruel and miraculous hand of fate. For lack of anything better to do, Alice goes looking for trouble, dragging the other girls in tow, across the bleak and magical American desert, a landscape where only the thorny and fierce survive.
The desert is a metaphor, of course, but forget that for now, because there are so many other characters in this novel, and all of them are having wicked fun. Like Annabel’s father, Carter, and his dead wife, Ginger, an angry specter who refuses to go gently into that good night — not when she can sit around and torture her closet case of a husband from the ineffable beyond.
Then there’s Sherwin, a dinner-party pianist, lazy existentialist and self-proclaimed parasuicide, who tries to find salvation in a sexless affair with Alice. Williams’ masterful, roving point of view dips in and out of each character’s troubled mind, weaving together these parables of doom and merry rapture.
Animals and objects are granted the same measure of narrative dignity as are men, women and children. Saguaros, highway off-ramps, the atrophied feet of a man determined to die with perfect awareness — all these things get a voice, so to speak. Dogs are integral characters in several plot lines — they live and die and disappoint like everything else under the sun.
Williams creates a grim and sunny cosmos where anything is possible — anything, that is, except sentimentality and self-deception. The best characters in The Quick and the Dead are on the brink of understanding something fundamental — that human beings are God’s greatest mistake. Our world is so baffling, unfair and ineluctable. Like the friendship among the three teenage girls who steer this grand cast of characters toward the end of the book, perhaps toward the end of the world.
What are you supposed to do with a message like that? Dry your eyes and rejoice! Risk everything! Or, in my case, ditch your job so you can go home and read.
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