A highly original coming-of-ager that integrates the gothic and magical realism in its consideration of families, youth, souls, and the fates of species.
Alice, age 16 and living with her grandparents outside Phoenix, rants about ecological disaster and animal slaughter. On her treks through the desert—primers for naturalists—she sees the functions and habits of desert life as comparable to the human spirit and nature: “Plants were lucky because when they adapted it wasn’t considered a compromise. It was more difficult for a human being, a girl.” Despite that difficulty, adapt she does, often miraculously well. Only hours after being ripped off and abandoned in the desert by an adult employer, Alice sits back home eating cheese sandwiches and spaghetti. The story rolls from the disturbing and frightening to the surreally banal, with Alice’s psyche as the roller-coaster’s engine. Her friend Annabel arrives in the desert from back east, where her mother recently died. Her sexually confused and enormously wealthy father, Carter, is trying to escape his dead wife Ginger’s ghost—to no avail. Hilarious scenes between Carter and said ghost raise marital bickering from the mundane to the cosmic. In a somewhat dizzying middle passage that cross-cuts between characters and events, a house burns down, a dog is hung, a 19-year-old drifter carries a dead bighorn ram across his back, a panicked deer thrashes in a swimming pool, a gay piano-player contemplates bathtub suicide, and an eight-year-old poet pickets against taxidermy outside a museum of stuffed animals. In an upended noir motif, Carter tries to hire Alice to kill his already dead wife. The dead, in this novel, are as restless as the living.
Williams is in top form here (State of Grace, 1990, etc.), her outrage balanced by a wise, compassionate, bemused overview. Think Denis Johnson’s world, minus the drugs—ultimately, though, Williams echoes only herself in a risky, frisky, profound book.