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Powells.com
Monday, August 6th, 2001


 

Ill Nature

by Joy Williams

A review by C. P. Farley

Helen Caldicott once called the human race a "plague of rats upon the earth." For Joy Williams, if Ill Nature is any indication, this is an insult to rats. In these nineteen essays, Williams makes herself quite clear. In our determination to methodically destroy the miraculous ecosystems that not only sustain all life, but also make living worthwhile, human beings demonstrate an unfathomable level of stupidity and moral decrepitude. And it makes Williams spitting mad.

For her lyrical, darkly-comic fiction, Joy Williams has been admired by such distinguished readers as Raymond Carver, Don Delillo, and Harold Brodkey, who called her "the most gifted writer of her generation." But when she took up nonfiction, Williams sought a decidedly nonliterary style: "unelusive and strident and brashly one-sided." She found it.

The collection begins with an ironic whine about how difficult it is, anymore, to enjoy nature: "A picture of a poor old sea turtle with barnacles on her back, all ancient and exhausted...hardly fills you with joy, because you realize, quite rightly, that just outside the frame falls the shadow of the condo....just beyond the dunes lies a parking lot...maybe a bulimia treatment center."

Elsewhere, she writes witheringly of our nonplussed attitude toward the regular slaughter of millions of animals: "Their mysterious otherness has not saved them, nor have their beautiful songs and coats and skins and shells and eyes"; hunters: "Camouflaged toilet paper is a must for the modern hunter, along with his Bronco and his beer. Too many hunters taking a dump in the woods with their roll of Charmin beside them were mistaken for white-tailed deer and shot. Hunters get excited"; and even babies: "Consider having none or one and be sure to stop after two, the organization Zero Population Growth suggests politely. Can barely hear them what will all the babies squalling. Hundreds of them popping out every minute."

Reading these essays, I felt sorry for Joy Williams's mother. If she is this caustic now, she must have been unbearable as a teenager. I was also reminded of a passage in John Knowles's A Separate Peace. The narrator, recalling his prep school sarcasm, reflects that "It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak."

There is something adolescent in Williams's derisive diatribes. But when, turning the last, bitter page, I felt a desperate, compelling urge to do something, anything write my senator, head for the razors, whatever! I realized that these essays are also very necessary.


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