BOOKS 2021

Joy Williams’s Scorched Earth

In her first novel in 21 years, the great American writer drags us laughing and screaming into a frightening future

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Perhaps it’s only natural to think animal life exists for the benefit of humanity—as natural as believing the sun orbits the earth. Joy Williams, one of the most poignant, nervy fiction writers in America today, has spent the latter part of her career railing against this unsustainable sensibility, while rarely coming off as didactic. Hers is a literature of emotional provocation and painful contradiction, of drunks, heretics, teenagers, drifters, and grifters whose failed humanity implicates the author, even as she satirizes them. “The Vandewaters were extremely beachy and boaty,” she tells us at the beginning of her 2016 story “Apropos of Nothing,” her characterizations bouncy and her plot cutting. The family’s patriarch dies with a shrimp on a toothpick in his hand.

For her 2001 collection of environmentalist essays, Ill Nature, the now 77-year-old played the role of hypocrite—she bemoaned the depletion of natural habitats in the Florida Keys, though she bought land on the archipelago; ranted about why people should stop having children, though she has a daughter; censured the killing of animals, but euthanized her German Shepherd after he mauled her. These self-consciously untrustworthy screeds remind us that Williams is an artist, not an activist—or a model for eco-friendly living. She hates society’s knee-jerk sense of anthropocentrism; still, much of the power of her 10 books of fiction stems from her ability to empathize with the inconsistencies and predicaments of people.

Yet as she and the world have aged, Williams’s writing has shifted in terms of which Homo sapiens seem worth her care. Her first three novels, State of Grace (1973), The Changeling (1978), and Breaking and Entering (1988), follow morally dubious young women and men, while her last two, The Quick and the Dead (2000) and Harrow (just out from Knopf), feature children and adolescents facing an uncertain ecological future. Does their newness to life make these characters redeemable? Williams thinks so—the prose evokes the futile cry of those weaned on American privilege then condemned to an adulthood of climate change: I never asked to be born! In other ways, the difference between her last two novels is a sad sign of how much worse things have gotten in just a couple of decades. Hope in youth’s vitality peeks through the humorous, whimsical surface of The Quick and the Dead, while in Harrow, being young has been thoroughly soiled by circumstance. All that separates the book’s children from the vicissitudes of adulthood is puberty. Some of them are sentenced to a life of responsibility before they sprout their first armpit hair, finding their own food and shelter in a hapless world.

If this sounds bleak—it is!—Williams’s jokes and insights come fast, herding us through a rolling, expansive plot. Harrow’s two main characters are abused, their entire existence receptacles for parental battiness and ambition: teenaged Khristen, who has her childhood swallowed whole by her mother’s belief that she’s a messianic figure walking a dying earth, and 10-year-old Jeffrey, whose own overbearing matriarch pushes him toward a legal career in spite of the fact that his dad recently killed his grandfather over a lawyerly spat. “Torts … is his destiny,” Mom believes about her precocious son. She informs him of the murder by writing it in frosting on his birthday cake.

The carnivalesque, post-apocalyptic narrative leads us through a school for gifted children, an unnamed disaster, and an institute where elderly eco-warriors plot their next acts of sabotage while becoming sicker and more homebound. This journey is a mere occasion for a pruned wilderness of precise, ranging prose, allusions to Conrad and Kafka (the “K” in Khristen’s name ain’t an accident), and flashes of askew profundity. “Homemakers without homes,” one character says to another, “That is precisely our coming condition.” Worldbuilding comes through dialogue, as breathless recognitions of society’s dystopia. Sentences layer symbolic and actual significance, excruciating sadness and humor. “Time doesn’t have the tolerance with us that it used to,” remarks one character, who later reveals, “I’ve got cancer down to my fingertips, down to my very bunions….” The novel never feels performative or, God forbid, opportunistic for its grimness—Williams’s humor gives the impression that she internalized this doleful mood long ago. It’s perhaps her most difficult to read: Unfolding in a scant 200 pages, the book contains the comprehensive melancholy of someone in their December years who cares deeply about the living, human and animal alike.

Such a harrowing read (sorry) is all the more relentless for entering the world at a time when the inaction of governments, largely run by older people, is ensuring that those under 40 endure a future of constant climate-change-related hardships, unpredictable natural disasters, displacement, and untold death. Many of Williams’s adults are ceaselessly self-centered, careless toward their social, familial, and ecological environments. The elderly at the institute, protecting a future they will not live to experience, are a more complicated bunch, as flawed as the nonfiction narrator of Ill Nature but movingly fleshed-out—they’re violent activists who refuse to be called terrorists, people with regrets and shortcomings who experience variable senses of despair about the efficacy of radical politics. This milieu feels familiar, a reference to those who came of age in the 1960s and have tried to carry on its revolutionary spirit through the neoliberal decades that followed. Khristen arrives at the institute during a “low point in the caliber of the place.” One resident, Tom, who wants to poison the attendees of a trophy-hunting convention, has his plans waylaid when he begins to lose his eyesight. “They did not consider themselves ‘terrorists,’” Williams’s narrator tells us, “reserving that word for the bankers and builders, the industrial engineers, purveyors of war and the market, it goes without saying, the exterminators and excavators, the breeders and consumers of every stripe, those locusts of clattering, clacking hunger.” The inheritance of generations is inherent to the novel’s sadness. Throughout, Khristen fantasizes that her mother, too, had been a resident of the institute:

“… she had arrived just before all of it was broken, when the finest minds still preached control and possession, adaptation and modification. Khristen had arrived to see it now, in ruins, the concert pavilions, the lecture halls, the gymnasiums and meditation chambers—the roofless library where the massive books slouched on broad shelves, rippled as though made of lead, their pages sealed, irretrievable.”

Of course, Williams snakes her logic back toward writing, a medium that, however enduring, will probably fall short as a spark for the kind of paradigm shift we need now. The author knows this better than most: In a 2015 profile in the New York Times Magazine, she asks, “Could this obsessional looking at the human bring about the death of literature?” If Williams’s observation is obsessive, though, it’s also ambivalent, echoing her feelings toward Hawk, the dog that attacked and wounded her—the beloved pet she put down. In novels and stories, confusion and betrayal do not undermine affection. They make the sentiment real, because if fiction has a point, it’s capturing complexity, not pointing fingers. The masterful Harrow provides us with something strange and discomfitingly lifelike: a time-lapse of the elderly fading at their edges, and other doomed characters whose youth, at best, might allow them to run more gracefully out of time.   ❖

Highlights