Williams strikes again with Honored Guest

By Djamila Noelle Grossman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, November 18, 2004

A woman talking to a deer foot lamp. A vanished husband. A drowned dog. A fat lady with 10 children. Women in a nuthouse. These are representative characters out of Joy Williams' latest book "Honored Guest."

Williams, who lives in Key West, Fla. and Tucson, has waited more than a decade to publish this collection of short stories.

Williams is the author of four novels; the most recent one a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. She has published essays and other short stories, many of which have won awards.

Williams has said that it takes her a long time to write stories; sometimes she finishes only a couple of good sentences a day. She also said she is seldom satisfied with her literature.

With "Honored Guest," Williams has nothing to worry about. The 12 skillfully written stories are interesting and suck the reader right into the weirdest worlds.

Death, pets and shattered parent-child relationships are the thread, connecting story after story with creepy resemblances.

The title story deals with a teenage daughter who has to stay with her slowly dying mom. Both are confronted with the issue of death every day: "At the beginning death was giving the opportunity to be interesting. But they lost sight of it somehow. It became a lesser thing, more terrible. They began waiting for it. Terrible, terrible."

The reader is trapped in the house with the helpless girl and the rotting mother, feeling the immense responsibilities and incredible burden on both people in their struggle to make the best out of their last days together.

In the next story, Williams doesn't deprive the reader of strange and gruesome detail. A husband's new hunting passion leads to an accident, when the arrow "passed through his eye and into his head like a knife thrust into a cantaloupe. A large portion of his brain lost its rosy hue and turned gray as a rodent's coat." The grieving wife starts to build a relationship with a lamp made out of deer feet, and finally becomes director of a stuffed animal museum, after the taxidermist retires.

Williams immerses the reader into those mostly destructed worlds of her protagonists, making them feel surreal and creepy. However, she shows the human side of those who deal with inhumanity or unbearable pain. It becomes almost normal to investigate all this death and all this poverty and all those queer relationships, which blend in perfectly into the context.

It opens ones eyes, that this too, is reality. One great skill of Williams is to subtly emphasize humanity, even though the material speaks so loud of misery, poverty and brutality.

At first it is shocking to be confronted with these stories and every page bears something else to wonder about and to discover. After a while though, the similarities take away the tension and the reading becomes slightly repetitive.

The stories are definitely not for a relaxing nighttime read. But everyone who likes strange, thoughtful literature will be in good hands with this book.