After ten long years without a new story collection from Joy Williams, we are finally rewarded this week with The Visiting Privilege, containing thirteen new stories and thirty-three stories collected from across Williams’s career. Williams is a writer’s writer, a storysmith of the highest caliber whose creations are studied and beloved by the greatest in her field. The back of Visiting Privilege bears acclaim from the likes of Raymond Carver, George Plimpton, and James Salter. A wonderful profile of Williams in the New York Times Magazine last week contains George Saunders praising her comedy, Karen Russell calling her a “visionary,” and Ann Beattie exclaiming over her use of exclamation points. A reviewer at NPR called her “quite possibly America’s best living writer of short stories.” And the stories in Visiting Privilege are worth every inch of the praise.
The new stories in the collection are sharp and honest, like all of Williams’s stories. They are tight and purposeful even when the characters are wandering and disoriented. They are spiked with barbs of insight and truth. They confront loss, grief, loneliness, helplessness—but are also funny in that dark, deadpan Williams way. The prose is spare but infused with tone and character, and the focus can zip from cleaning binoculars to existential angst to a penis joke in the space of a few words, as in this paragraph from “The Bridgetender”:
I finally put up the binoculars. Wiped them off. The glass was getting milky from all the wetness in the air. As a matter of fact, I think they was shot from my never using them, never caring for them at all. Lots of things are like that. Life, you know, it begins to rot if you don’t use it. Everything gets bound or rusted up. Tools especially. Gear. My tool. Ha ha.
This is why the best writers in the country look up to Joy Williams. In that single paragraph, Williams delivers a sense of character, history, purpose (or lack thereof), comedy, angst, resignation, and wisdom for the ages.
The story is one of Williams’s Kafkaesque ones, where you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. The narrator isn’t sure either, and tells you so. It’s the story of a hazy love affair—or maybe sex affair would be a more appropriate term—between a bridgetender and a birdwatcher who just shows up one day at his cabin, stays awhile, and then leaves as easily and mysteriously as she came. The language is spare, but also infused with beauty:
I was a lumberjack and she was a dancehall cutie. And I was a big black lake and she was a sailboat coming over me. But that night she and that dog was gone.
In another story, “The Mission,” a woman goes to jail for nine days for a DUI. (“I had been drinking manhattans all afternoon for reasons that remain obscure.”) She counts the days, even though she knows it makes it worse.
You’re better off if you don’t count the days in jail. Never count the days. Time served does not go Monday Tuesday Wednesday and so on but Monday to Tuesday, Tuesday to Wednesday, in that manner. It’s longer that way, which is how they want it.
But it’s not just that days seem to last forever. Her sentence never ends. It stretches on and on. She talks to a Mr. Hill, a warden or councilor, several times, and he thinks she’s a different inmate each time. It’s a story about freedom and the illusion of it. The woman says to her lawyer, “I want to be able to come and go out there.” Her lawyer says, “Don’t we all . . . I mean in the deepest sense.” The next line: “From the very first I had found her annoying.” Without ruining the story, by the end we’ve gone full Kafka.
In another story, “Souvenir,” two old men in a haunted English town play a prank on the tourists, gathered in a tourist bar delightfully called “Excali-Bar.” The prank is this: they get them to confess their losses. It starts as a game, with lighthearted items, like “my hair,” but quickly progresses to “my memory,” “my husband,” “my potency.” Eventually, the tourists are trapped in a hell of confession, of admissions of heartbreak and grief.
The Visiting Privilege is packed with beauty and horror and the exquisite pain of loss. You might think that would make for a depressing read, but it’s not one. Instead, it feels essential. The heart and soul are drawn to these stories, not to receive comfort, not to be told everything will turn out okay, but because they sense the truth at the core of them. And truth, while not necessarily comforting, is necessary, and accepting it can be healing. Or, as a Joy Williams story would say, maybe not.