“Hell is unpleasant. Heaven is more pleasant.” Williams, maker of superb short fictions, plumbs the distinction in this slender, evocative collection.
Absent a direct statement otherwise, we should understand the deity here to be something along the lines of what old John Lennon said: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” The God that lurks in Williams’ brief, elegant stories is very often puzzled by creation, as when he tries to understand why humans should so have it in for wolves: “You really are so intelligent,” he tells one pack, “and have such glorious eyes. Why do you think you’re hounded so?” Ever gracious, the wolves thank God for including them in his plan, leaving him to ponder—well, never mind, since we don’t want to step on the punch line. Suffice it to say that sometimes God shows up on time, sometimes not, sometimes not at all; sometimes he extends grace, and sometimes, as with a colony of bats he’s been living with in a cave, he “had done nothing to save them.” This isn’t theology in the Joel Osteen vein, but it is deep and thought-through theology all the same, and even when God doesn’t figure in the narrative by name, the divine presence is immanent. And sometimes, of course, God is there without announcing himself, taking the form of, say, that homeless fellow who mutteringly assures us, “You don’t get older during the time spent in church.” Seldom occupying more than a couple of pages, Williams’ stories are headed by a number, one to 99, but carry an “undertitle” at the end that glosses the tale in question, sometimes quite offhandedly: in the case of that heaven and hell distinction, for example, it’s “PRETTY MUCH THE SAME, THEN,” while an argument about the impossibility of really knowing God is slugged, rather more mysteriously, “NAKED MIND.”
Admirers of Williams—and anyone who treasures a story well told should be one—will find much to like here.