Current Weather
The Spy FM

‘The Quick And The Dead’: Parables Of Doom And Merry Rapture

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
March 17, 2013

Domenica Ruta is the author of With or Without You.

I worked as a bookstore cashier for six weeks, until the day my manager rebuked me for reading. The store was empty and I was standing behind the register when she ripped a paperback out of my hands.

“You look like you have nothing to do.”

“I was reading,” I said, the only sensible response to such a ludicrous indictment. I was actually hoping a customer would come in so I could hold forth on the very book she’d pried away from me.

It was The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams. The paperback edition I had bought — with my 38 percent employee discount — bears my favorite cover in the whole of American fiction. The bottom third features a pit of snakes slithering out from their nest hidden in the brush. It’s an ominous, exhilarating scene that evokes the last days of Eden. Above them in the remaining blank space, the gold talons and spindly legs of an invisible bird alight upon a free-floating tree branch. What kind of bird is? And what happened? Did it just vanish? Was it erased? Eradicated? The Quick and the Dead is a novel that asks many more questions than it ventures to resolve, a quality that inspired total trust in me as a reader.

The sprawling multinarrative centers around teenage Alice and the improbable trinity of girls with whom she associates for one strange summer. To call Alice, Corvus and Annabel friends is careless; they are girls of the same age, girls without mothers, a tiny coven yoked to each other by the cruel and miraculous hand of fate. For lack of anything better to do, Alice goes looking for trouble, dragging the other girls in tow, across the bleak and magical American desert, a landscape where only the thorny and fierce survive.

The desert is a metaphor, of course, but forget that for now, because there are so many other characters in this novel, and all of them are having wicked fun. Like Annabel’s father, Carter, and his dead wife, Ginger, an angry specter who refuses to go gently into that good night — not when she can sit around and torture her closet case of a husband from the ineffable beyond.

Then there’s Sherwin, a dinner-party pianist, lazy existentialist and self-proclaimed parasuicide, who tries to find salvation in a sexless affair with Alice. Williams’ masterful, roving point of view dips in and out of each character’s troubled mind, weaving together these parables of doom and merry rapture.

Animals and objects are granted the same measure of narrative dignity as are men, women and children. Saguaros, highway off-ramps, the atrophied feet of a man determined to die with perfect awareness — all these things get a voice, so to speak. Dogs are integral characters in several plot lines — they live and die and disappoint like everything else under the sun.

Williams creates a grim and sunny cosmos where anything is possible — anything, that is, except sentimentality and self-deception. The best characters in The Quick and the Dead are on the brink of understanding something fundamental — that human beings are God’s greatest mistake. Our world is so baffling, unfair and ineluctable. Like the friendship among the three teenage girls who steer this grand cast of characters toward the end of the book, perhaps toward the end of the world.

What are you supposed to do with a message like that? Dry your eyes and rejoice! Risk everything! Or, in my case, ditch your job so you can go home and read.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

12AM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center