Review of "The Quick and the Dead" by Joy Williams
Ferocious is the word that springs to mind when I consider The Quick and the Dead. The desert setting of this novel (“bright and violent”) is ferocious. Its themes are ferocious, and the work seems to press its characters to pursue these themes ferociously. The three misfit and motherless girls – and Alice in particular – are ferocious. The humor is, in many places, accomplished with ferocious intensity and brilliance. And ultimately it’s a ferociously serious work.
This desert town is a place of implied violence and cruelty, a lot of it to do with animals. Orphaned Alice, aged sixteen and living with her grandparents, befriends two other girls, also orphans. Propelled by certain radical spites, a lot of them to do with the way humans engage with animals, Alice starts to look for trouble and drags the others with her. The three girls have little in common, but Alice has sufficient amounts of radical anger to unite them. They spend their summer in odd and hostile behaviour. They volunteer in a nursing home where the residents are fed greyhound meat. They tie a boy up for killing a sheep. A taxidermy museum gains their attention. Each of these things becomes a focus for a concentrated and bitter anger that is skilfully rendered.
But does it function, this novel? For all its excellence, The Quick and the Dead is an uneven, somewhat unbalanced experience for the reader – particularly as the novel approaches its dying stages.
This novel echoes Don DeLillo’s brilliant White Noise. Both novels satirise a world of suburban torpor punctured by shards of societal nonsense, wherein the children/youth make the most sense of anyone. And, like Mr DeLillo’s work, in her novel Ms Williams turns over the filthy underbelly of everything to reveal the ugliness of the honeymoon cystitis, the herpes blisters, the picture of a woman trysting with an octopus in a hotel room. And “that little pie parlor next door has turned into a Just for Feet store,” says Alice’s poppa. The Quick is sharp in its satire, witty and very clever in its world-building:
She walked quickly, sometimes breaking into a run, through the gulleys and over the rocks, past the strange growths, all living their starved, difficult lives. Everything had hooks or thorns. Everything was saw-edged and spiny-pointed.
Theme matters a lot in this novel. Witness the casual neurosis of Alice’s brother/father and the spite of Nurse Daisy. See in the nursing home and the dead wildlife museum how little distance separates the living and the dead. Behold the cars that mutilate the road kill while “a herd of men” jog by in fluorescent shorts, the desert deer that leap into stucco backyard pools during cocktail hour. Observe that humans are the problem with everything.
But the characters are the greatest strength in this novel. Alice is fabulous in her militancy, censoriousness and misanthropy – both on her own and particularly in opposition to Annabel, who is from a completely different planet:
Alice … was practically apoplectic over the manatee note cubes and the fake petroglyph rocks in velveteen pouches and the enameled plastic butterfly magnets, becoming particularly enraged over a photograph of a wolf offered for, Annabel thought, the quite reasonable price of seventy-five dollars.
The ghost of Ginger is perfect as she derides her husband for failing to inspect her vulva, skewers his affection for Donald and impugns his heterosexuality:
“Passion was never your forte,” Ginger went on. “Your member was adequate, but your lovemaking lacked élan. Admit it, Carter. You preferred making money.”
And Sherwin - dinner-party pianist, lazy existentialist and self-proclaimed parasuicide with a glass eye - is his own amusement park.
So it’s a busy work, and everything seems to have a voice in this novel: Animals; highway off-ramps; the feet of a dying man; the Saguaro. All of them stomp onto an already crowded stage to deny any possibility of delusion in this grim world. There is a great cleverness in all this, as the themes - legions of them - swarm upon us while we are having all this fun. But this has costs, as well as benefits.
The central problem is that there is no real plot in The Quick and thus nothing pulls it all together. The roving point of view spanning too many characters (dogs included) and the episodic meandering structure create instability. The lack of resolution at the end is acceptable, but not when it there is also a lack of coherence, such as we unfortunately see here.
This incoherence begins around the time when Ray enters the action, promising much insanity and neurosis. But he vanishes without real explanation and from then on the novel becomes a set of furious fragments hurled at the reader. Stumpp enters. He is overdone and his interactions with Emily are absurd and too heavy handed. Nurse Daisy emerges as a monster. Through all this we have lost sight of Alice, our original point of view character, and anything that may have resembled a story. It’s not clear what the reader is meant to do with all this.
And there are major problems with some of the plot elements. For example, we wait for Alice and Corvus to avenge the murder of Tommy, the dog. But we see only an unheralded and ridiculous scene in which J.C. loses his penis down a lizard hole and then is never heard from again. Ray vanishes like a lost toy. And Sherwin’s death beggars belief. And exactly why was Alice ever interested in him in the first place? None of this confusion or distraction is necessary. The brilliance of this novel was established early on. Thereafter, less would have been more. Ultimately – and it’s such a pity - it’s as if Ms Williams’ own ferocity gets the better of her. What could have been a functional sprawling multi-narrative concludes as a mess of characters, wild leaps, overdone satire and omnidirectional anger.