THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


God, Death, and the Florida Keys

Joy Williams’s Literature of the Guidebook

by Jango McCormick

Illustration by Cece Stewart

published March 7, 2020


Random House was doing this series—Virginia, the Hamptons, the Keys. The Keys were still kind of strange and unspoiled in the eighties. I went around the state and wrote things down, but nobody talked to me. Nobody! I’d limp into these bed-and-breakfasts and people would snarl at me and not want to talk. I mean, honestly, it was terrible and I had no idea what I was doing. And it wasn’t edited, nobody edited it. Have you seen the afterword, the final edition, when I didn’t want to update it anymore? Here I am, worn out and saying how shitty everything in the Keys has become, and Random House just went ahead and put the afterword in there. Isn’t that amazing? That’s the only book I’ve ever made money from.

 

Joy Williams in an interview from The Paris Review Issue 209, Summer 2014

 

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In 2003, the tenth and final edition of The Florida Keys: A History & Guide was published almost without comment to a modest and largely casual readership of the kind that receives most guidebooks. That this moment went unremarked by the critical establishment can be attributed to the lack of recognition afforded to the guidebook genre, an unsurprising blindspot given the derisive attitude taken by many writers of fiction and poetry toward the suggestion that they write something “useful.” The fact that the author of The Florida Keys is acclaimed novelist Joy Williams seems to have had close to no bearing on the book’s reception, and so a valuable addition to the canon of contemporary American literature snuck by critics and readers essentially unnoticed.

It makes sense that of all contemporary novelists, it was Williams who saw fit to remedy the lack of literarily serious writing in the guidebook industry. Williams is occupied throughout her fiction with evoking precisely the kind of placeness that is central to the project of a travel guide. She is interested in place as it serves as a receptacle for time, and those places that are most charged with time’s passing crop up repeatedly in her fiction. Resorts and vacation towns share her attention as spaces where people live for a while and then stop living, leaving their things behind. Senior centers offer a more morbid example of the same. Desert communities in former frontiers like the American West, depleted of culture and people by violence or the strip mall variety of mass consumerism, serve as surfaces against which characters are cast in harsh, almost ahistorical light. The Florida Keys also make frequent and often freaky appearances, their diminished glamour darkly dealt with. Williams covets the kinds of places that were once enthusiastically invested with a body of meaning that either exceeded the place itself or emptied out of it over time.

 

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The impossible project of the guidebook is to exhaustively describe a place. But to do so even somewhat successfully makes the guidebook central to the processes of saturation and depletion of meaning that Williams takes up in her fiction. Guidebooks can inflict the great levelling power of mass tourism on the places they attempt to pay tribute to. Williams is not unaware of this irony, which she obliquely touches on in the introduction to The Florida Keys:

“Time Passes, of course. The snake lady is run over one night as she is crossing the road. Someone builds his dream house in front of the pretty view, cutting down the jaracanda trees in the process. But the Keys, though no longer the empty, silent stretches they once were, still markedly lack (you might as well be told) historical and cultural monuments.” Williams locates the Keys in a decisive historical moment, a pre-monument but post-emptiness stretch of time that cannot last. It is after their literary fame (most acutely felt as a nostalgia for depressed modernists) but before they will disappear under the sea. “Time passes… the bill is coming,” Williams writes, “the bill for all our environmental mistakes of the past. The big bill.” Her guidebook, like her fiction, fixes on the uncertain moment where a place crosses a threshold from one kind of existence into another.

It is difficult to express just how important these threshold points are for Williams. They are the germ of her creative work. She does not dwell on what happens on one side or another of a given boundary; it is instead the points of crossing that animate her writing. These points push up through every available surface of her books, expanding and opening into characters, plot, style.

In its conceptual framing, this focus on the liminal can sound tired, and it is true that the exploitation of thresholds, border-crossing, and the contradictions that flow from society’s delineations is not a new theme for modern fiction. But Williams’ love for boundary spaces is pure. She takes the raw material of these crossings and distills them to almost hallucinatory purity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her second novel, The Changeling. Williams’s description of The Changeling as a book “about a drunk” does not quite do justice to the drunken tone of the book itself, the haze of language that distorts and makes uncertain every object of her description. The major elements of the book’s plot rarely exist as anything more than intimations. We gather, barely, that the drunk in question, Pearl, may be raising a son who is not her own, a baby switched in the chaos of a plane crash, a changeling. Her paranoia on this subject is only one manifestation of a much broader suspicion that the whole world is a changeling world that has come into being not unlike her unloved son. Pearl suspects that God doesn’t love humans, suspects that He created the world only to take it away again, using it to feed “what He loved most… Nothingness.” She struggles to be free in the world, but drinking obviates the need for that struggle. When she isn’t drunk, she has a talent for constructing provocative declaratives: “God wasn’t dead, He was just sick. Very very sick . . .”

The threat of an encroaching Nothingness is also present in her guide to the Keys. In both The Changeling and The Florida Keys, the consciousness-altering force of alcohol plays a decisive role in the preservation of the world against the increasing emptiness. For both Pearl and the Keys, the consumption of alcohol is a form of resistance against the work of time. Although developers and the “consumptive edge” of Floridian society threaten the Keys, Williams assures us that at the very least, “the disreputable bar remains.” Such bars are important to Williams (they feature prominently in her fiction) if only because they change more slowly than the rest of a place, burdened by the inertia arising from their commitments to an institutional existence that is at once social and commercial. This, along with the habit-forming power of alcohol, makes them a good place to find the grittier presence that remains within mainstream society. Several sufficiently disreputable bars are featured in The Florida Keys, described in passages which contain violence worthy of her fiction. Williams explains the origin of the “absolutely no dogs” rule at The Caribbean Club Bar by recounting a story that culminates with a drunken customer angrily kicking a puppy to death; she concludes that after the incident, “the management decided that the dogs hanging out in the bar were a potential problem.” The guidebook is populated by anecdotes like this one, depicting gruesome acts that are idiosyncratic enough to seduce the reader, but which are ultimately swept out of the realm of future possibility. It is probably for the best that no one will ever have reason to kick to death a puppy at The Caribbean Club Bar thanks to its “no dogs” policy, but one can’t help but feel that Williams mourns as she regards these changes. The stories in The Florida Keys are a history of possibility being standardized and reduced, and the newest bars are summarized with only the address and price range that typify most of the guidebook’s entries.

But Williams is never truly nostalgic, and the ethos present in the guidebook can be found more explicitly in The Changeling, where she uses Pearl’s alcoholic consciousness to show us the work of the sick, liminal God and His world, most full only as it leaves existence. The novel is dominated by a paradoxically constant motion toward death, a dying that never realizes itself. Dying appears fractalized in the novel, covering every level of the language with an irreconcilable strangeness that suggests the ever-present possibility of death, always left barely unsaid. Dialogue between characters is often so odd that we cannot really be sure it is not the invention of Pearl’s drugged consciousness. Another member of the cult-like island community that Pearl is coerced into living in asks her the rhetorical question: “Had not insects visited Plato in his infancy, settling on his lips, ensuring him powerful speech?” How can anyone respond to this question, which is made bizarre by a language offered in such disconcerting abundance that it takes away any possible response? “Pearl sweated. Pearl hadn’t known what to say.” The reader is often emptied of words at the same time Pearl is an effect of Williams’ disarming textual stylings. Not every line is comprehensible, and the vague plot is only mobile by virtue of its own uncomfortably ambiguous language. The reading experience at times verges closer to the physiological than the intellectual. We too can only sweat, left powerless and wordless when confronted by Williams’ language.

 

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For Williams, these questions of language, death, and power are inextricable from the matter of sex, which is pervasive in her work, although rarely more than subtext in the systematic descriptions of The Florida Keys. In The Changeling, it is Williams’ erotic imagery that revels in and exploits the threshold spaces, the moment of the not-quite-there. But its place in Williams’ writing is difficult to understand. What can be done with a passage like this one, for instance:

“‘I’m not responsible for anything as far as I can tell,’ Pearl said.

She watched him eat, the soft sea flesh entering his mouth.

‘Everything is sex,’ Pearl sighed. ‘To dream of someone or to want to go somewhere. Eating is sex and music is sex . . . What is childhood a preparation for . . . I mean, those poor children . . .’”

The erotic drive is sublimated everywhere as physical substance for Williams. If it isn’t eaten as seafood it is secreted like sweat from the bodies of the young men that populate the edges of her novels and stories. It is details like the fact that the yard boy in her story “The Yard Boy” is not only “a handsome fellow” but that “his jeans smelled of tangelos” that somehow drives home her glancing erotics, perhaps more so than the explicit and plentiful references to her characters’ sexual exploits or their overly sexualized bodies. Her privileging of the male gender is not unambivalent. The boyish men or mannish boys are portrayed as attractive but nearly thoughtless, close to animals, a 20th century fantasy of masculinity decocted to its dirtied, barest fact. These men are described materially, less self-reflective individuals than as beautiful objects. Their existence is almost always refracted through a narrative eye that both gawks at and admires them. This is essentially the eye of a tourist, and the relationship of the narrator to these men is not so different from the guidebook’s approach to the Keys. The Florida Keys is written for a reader who indulges in what Pearl understands as the explicitly sexual desire “to want to go somewhere.” The work is organized island by island for the tourist who is driving through the entire archipelago, to which, we are told in the introduction, “the road, as its nature, allows entrance.” The road “is the beginning” along which the tourist or reader desires to travel with the guidebook, not stopping “until Key West, heeding the billboard’s urging, ‘GO ALL THE WAY.’”

Freedom—and what freedom is more full in its sheer possibility than that of driving over a great distance?—is itself an erotic construction for Williams. Read any of her novels and you will begin to notice this pattern of thought. Breaking and Entering spatializes the conceit by using a resort town as the backdrop for two ethereal young people who move in and out of houses that are empty for the season, physically dealing with the illicit thresholds they cross as they break and enter. The characters move into spaces that do not belong to them. The Quick and The Dead places one typical Williams archetype—the precocious, nihilistic adolescent who can move fluidly across social and spatial boundaries—against another—the male adult whose relationship with children is problematic (in this book, a pedophile and a bad father) and who cannot find his way out of his own consciousness. The father spends most of his time in dialogue with his dead wife; the pedophile is only a pedophile when he transgresses his own homosexuality to sleep with a too-young woman, and though his torment is mostly dulled by drugs, it is almost too telling that he dies when a mirror breaks into him with disturbingly suggestive motion, “sliding its cool tongues into his hands and throat and heart.” In The Florida Keys, freedom is dealt with differently, though also as transgression, a movement into a space where one doesn’t belong. There however, the transgression is against the land itself, because as soon as the tourist gets off the road they are in a place where they are foreign by both cultural and ecosystemic metrics. The best they can hope for is to be absorbed into that new environment like the snorkeler who “is not what he appears to others, he is what he sees. He has a magic glass wrapped around his eyes and he is in a world of beauty and color. Graceful movement. Silence.” This is the erotic freedom of threshold crossing purified, the environmental degradation that moves the whole of the Keys in the direction of the Nothingness of the sick God temporarily forgotten as a snorkeler disappears into his own perception of the sea. This fluid absorption into nature is Williams’ erotic ideal, the only way to circumvent the violence of every other kind of threshold crossing. Snorkeling is temporary, but it approximates the true solution as a kind of stasis or living death.

 

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In The Changeling, Pearl is always surrounded by a pack of children she cannot separate from animals, children whose games move easily into a violence that ultimately ends the book. But even then the dying is left undescribed and uncertain, and it is by this omission that The Changeling reaches its full height, its power clinched by its unwillingness to take a hard moral stance or to be plainly tragic or comic. As with all of Williams’ best work, The Changeling opts not to follow the basic arc of many modern stories—culminating in some kind of death, physical or psychic—but instead elects to idle in its own indeterminacy, to salt its own wounds. This is not to say that Williams relies on the cliché of cutting off plot with only a hint of the Terrible Fate to come (though this is a technique she makes successful use of), but rather that she lets her characters wonder about fate itself even as it plays out on their lives. “The demands of living have consequences,” Pearl speculates, “and that is called fate.” It is as if plot is some separation between the people in her stories and their world, a material manifestation of a metaphysical churning, a puncturing of everything including thought that goes so far that we cannot even take the assurance of death as certainty. Death figures as exactly the opposite of certainty; it is instead absolute possibility, a redemption that we may not be able to afford because the moment of the threshold threatens to last forever. Time may pass and the Keys may fade, but even if the water really does cover them they may not be saved by the clean cut of death. “Memory is the resurrection,” thinks Pearl, “The dead move among us the living in our memory and that is the resurrection.”

The Florida Keys fits easily into Williams’ greater corpus. Her voice can be more purely heard here than it can be in her fiction, where it is always at some kind of remove. Her narrative authority in The Florida Keys manifests itself everywhere, and nowhere more seductively than in her contemplation of the Keys’ active decline. She documents the “battle between man and free living chicken” on Key West in a way that cuts to the quick of the Keys’ transformation: “There are planes and mopeds and dumptrucks hauling away Paradise’s tailings. Then there are leafblowers, pool pumps, air conditioning units, and all noises connected with the town’s being a permanent renovation site. To be in a high dudgeon over the crowing of roosters seems sensitivity of the most specialized sort, a sensitivity that sometimes results in poultricide.” Williams relishes describing strangenesses with as much stylistic force as she does in her fiction, noting with suspicious subtext that “a hundred dollars or so buys you some unstructured time with the dolphins” at The Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key. She spends almost as much time describing what used to be in the Keys—“a sign just beyond the one welcoming travelers to the Florida Keys… said, ‘HELL IS TRUTH SEEN TOO LATE’”—as what is still there, like “Key Largo’s youth” who “practice spray-painting the symbol for anarchy on the rose-colored walls” of hurricane-ruined developments. “Sometimes,” Williams offers, “it’s nice to contemplate things that aren’t there.” What increasingly isn’t there is a past, a gritty and seductive past of snake ladies, of ramshackle bars, famous writers, but above all an ecosystemically balanced prehistory, a period when the intersection between humans and the Keys was not so troubled, when a God that loved something besides Nothingness was still conceivable.

Williams’ ability to document memory in text and ground it in an existing present is what makes The Florida Keys an effective guidebook, and for the casual traveler, that is all the book will really be. But for the reader of Williams the novelist, The Florida Keys is another installment of her ongoing literary project. It is a guide not only to the Keys but to the dying that inhabits all of her work, and this quasi-literary documentation of a past that is leaving but not yet gone is dense and difficult and elusive in just the way her fiction is at its best.

                                                    

JANGO MCCORMICK B'20 is in a high dudgeon over the crowing of roosters.