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.