Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Quick and The Dead: A Review by Matthew Salesses

This is the fourteenth of a many-part series written by the staff and editors of Fringe Magazine, who will be reviewing books from the Pool as part of the 25 Books Project

"Thoughts are infusorial," says Nurse Daisy, bard of Green Palms nursing home and one of the many characters populating Joy Williams's sharp-as-the-reaper's-scythe The Quick and the Dead.

This idea of the collective unconscious is in keeping with Williams' web imagery and interlocking narratives. The latter includes three motherless girls, a father who sees the ghost of his dead wife (urging him to join her in the next world), a suicidal pianist, an eight-year old who pours sand over her head, a dog murderer who suffers a Jake-Barnes-injury from a parcel bomb, a retired big-game hunter who listens to the music of air conditioners, a stroke survivor with a vivisected monkey in his head, a dog becoming increasingly paranoid, and so on.

The theme of exploration of life and death (as the title indicates) link these narratives, which take place in a fictional American desert town where the heat and landscape contribute to a certain sensitivity toward portentous images and events. As you would expect, characters die, move on, or are otherwise carried off not to return, all except protagonist and misanthrope Alice, who hasn't had her period since she found out the people she thought were her parents are really her grandparents.

My description of the network of characters does not do justice to the conceptual genius trickling through every dialogue and scene in the novel. Williams' characters talk intelligently, movingly, frighteningly, and humorously about life and death and what is or is not beyond; their thoughts, words, and actions connect in a startlingly organic way. This novel stops you in your tracks, lets you start down a new path, then stops you again. The writing exists at this consistently high level throughout—I dare any reader to stop reading after a page of back-and-forth between, say, Carter and his wife's ghost. That is what I liked most and least about the book as a whole.

There is barely room to breathe, barely time for the reader to step back and absorb what he or she has read, with all the information and wit and brilliance. Mostly this jam-packed-ness is extremely satisfying, but, ultimately, I did wish that the arc of the novel was a little more pronounced; I wanted more catharsis. The Quick and the Dead, once it gets you in its grasp, will not release you. Though, for the most part, I don't think you will want to be.

You can read about Matthew Salesses's dancing Christmas turkey at monkeybic, where it will be posted the day after Blame-the-Empty-Eggnog-on-Santa Day. His fiction is also available elsewhere on the web, or in MAR as the 2007 Fine Line contest winner. He is the assistant fiction editor at Redivider Journal and manager of the monsters under your bed. The monsters in the closet belong to some other guy.

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