Four dozen stories by one of the form’s greatest practitioners.
Like pitchers, some writers are openers, and some are closers. Few are as accomplished as Williams (Honored Guest, 2004, etc.) in condensing the whole of a large, often painful world into a few closing sentences: “She coughs, but it is not the cough of a sick person because Pammy is a healthy girl.” “It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.” “She looked at the lamp. The lamp looked back at her as though it had no idea who she was.” Not that Williams can’t open a story well (one lead: “My mother began going to gun classes in February. She quit the yoga”); it’s just that her most arresting moments come well after we’ve stepped into the world she’s created. That world has less dirt for its characters to get under their fingernails than, say, Raymond Carver’s, but it has some of the same uneasiness: if people are doing OK one minute, they’re going to stumble the next, and it’s often the things unnoticed or unspoken that will trip them. In the title story, for instance, it’s not just the protagonist’s offhand comment that ends a long-crumbling friendship: “We’re all alone in a meaningless world. That’s it. OK?” Just because it’s meaningless doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be feared, though; in another singular moment, a young girl is terrified that birds will fly out of the toilet. Why wouldn’t they? And why don’t all short stories feature Gregory of Nyssa and javelinas?
Williams, to belabor the metaphor, isn’t just a closer, but a utility player at the top of her game. If you want to see how the pros do it—or simply want to read some of the best stories being written today—you need look no further.