cover image The Quick and the Dead

The Quick and the Dead

Joy Williams. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44646-0

""This was no place to be tonight for any of them, but this was the place they were."" Set in the Texas desert, the first new fiction in 10 years from the much-praised Williams (States of Grace) examines the thoughts and hopes of three motherless 16-year-old girls, exploring their connections to one another, to a large cast of difficult adults and to the ghosts that populate their lives. Williams's first chapters introduce her three protagonists--beautiful, grief-stricken Corvus; zealous Alice, always looking for ""something that would give her a little edge or obscure the edge she already had, she didn't know which""; and Annabel, whose preoccupations with skincare and sweaters seems practical by comparison. Around this trio, other characters form a web of dependence, trust and mistrust--a web repeatedly broken by sudden violence. Annabel's father, Carter, lusts after his young Buddhist gardener, but carries on drunken, hostile conversations with the vindictive ghost of his dead wife. There's also stroke victim Ray Webb, a poetic young drifter; Sherwin, a piano player with a death wish; wealthy and bored big-game hunter Stumpp and the object of his affections, precocious and articulate eight-year-old Emily. All of Williams's people have lost something important, and all of them are spending time and energy with people they would not have chosen. Williams's psychology is subtle, her attention to teen diction superb. Like the Midwestern novelist Wright Morris, Williams gives her detailed, poetic novel an episodic, meandering structure, and the book ends without much resolution. But these are deliberate choices, made by an artist attentive to real people's psyches--and to how even our smallest decisions matter to others in ways we may never know. (Oct.)