Harrow, by Joy Williams, (Knopf: 2021), 224 pages.
Several years ago, I spent an unexpected afternoon with the author Joy Williams at the Hillsdale County Fair in Hillsdale, Michigan. She was in town touring a recent short story collection, and at her public reading she expressed a desire to see the festivities. My now wife volunteered to show her around, but since she had no car, the driving fell to me.
Not that I minded. Williams is an unsung hero of Silent Generation avant-garde, and I was curious about how she would handle lurching down back country roads with a 19-year-old college kid. She exceeded my expectations. Williams wore a massive pair of pitch-black sunglasses, as she had at the reading the night before. It was discomforting, but she said not to worry. She had no special illnesses. She only wore them out of habit, and she rarely removes them. As we pulled out of her hotel parking lot, she remarked that the way my Volkswagen Golf tumbled from first to second gear was vaguely sexual. And, almost in afterthought, she said that she couldn’t tolerate vermouth in a gin martini; a few drops of jalapeño juice worked much better.
The fair was not to Williams’s taste. Too many fat people and not enough freaks. And she was genuinely appalled by the 4-H tent, where local teenagers were proudly displaying the cattle they had raised that year. Williams wanted to lecture the teenagers on animal cruelty, but a sense of decorum restrained her. Instead, she told my wife, as she petted a steer, that their culture is barbarous.
“There’s such a disconnect here,” Williams said. “You were just talking about that cow’s beautiful eyelashes, and then … ”
She trailed off. The thought of the butcher troubled her too much for words.
In her fiction, however, Williams has much to say. Humans regularly have violent altercations with the natural world, and in the past two decades, she has made that phenomenon her great subject. She has increasingly turned a favorable eye toward extremism with her last two novels. The Quick and the Dead, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, follows the misadventures of three suburban girls daydreaming about ecoterrorism. Harrow, published in September, takes a look at the people who actually do it.
Those people are rather like Williams herself: aging, romantic, and ruefully aware that theirs is a lost cause. Harrow takes place in a pre-post-apocalyptic America, where the earth is dying and its animals are almost all dead. The novel’s heroes are a band of senile environmental crusaders planning to take a final revenge before the world’s ecological collapse. They are a “gabby seditious lot, in the worst of health but with kamikaze hearts, an army of the aged and ill, determined to refresh, through crackpot violence, a plundered earth.”
These oldsters are joined by Khristen, a teenager cut adrift after her prep school shut down in a fit of despair, and Jeffrey, a 10-year-old boy fruitlessly working his way through some law textbooks. Together they all hang out at a mildewed lake resort and wish for the deaths of the country’s perceived villains. One advances a far-fetched plan to bring down the United States Navy because its sonar use has decimated the dolphins. Another half-heartedly plots to murder some mid-level Big Pharma employees in a suicide bombing. But mostly these oldsters just whine about how no one takes activists seriously.
And why should anyone? With the world so far gone, even the most extreme act is at best only ineffective and at worst simply rude to the people quietly living out their despair. But the crazies will act anyway. In the novel’s climactic scene, two of the aged terrorizers explode themselves inside a salad bowl factory, succeeding only in killing themselves. As they bleed out on the ground, the EMT dressing their wounds mocks them: “You’re not thinking big. Old people never think big.”
In the eyes of the EMT, theirs is not a tragic situation. They disrupted order, albeit a tenuous and toxic order. “Terrorist assaults on factories and institutions, no matter how deleterious their products and convictions might be, ate away at the very fabric of civilization,” Williams writes. For the oldsters—and implicitly Williams—that’s the whole point.
If this all sounds a bit hysterical, that’s because it is. Williams, a bit like her mentor Don DeLillo, seems to have lost some of her marbles in recent years. Her jokes are a lot crankier and her narration is even more abstruse than it was in her early novels, when she was self-consciously fashioning herself as the female Malcolm Lowry. And yet Harrow works quite well. Williams can still write wickedly funny vignettes, at once foreboding and absurd, the sort that only a preacher’s daughter could dream up.
One of the best of these vignettes is little more than a throwaway line. Williams describes how the big metal wind turbines, which pollute a great portion of the Midwestern landscape, are not really used to generate clean energy. Rather, their blades often hang still, so as to better advertise the pharmaceutical brand names printed on them. “Otherwise, the drug companies wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth by sponsoring them,” she writes.
The scene recalls a complaint that Williams made to the Paris Review several years ago, when she was in the planning stages for Harrow. Then, Williams said that “environmentalism has become thoroughly co-opted” because it is much easier for a nonprofit to slap some nice slogans on a tote bag than actually do preservation work.
There’s a similar problem in American literature, she said in the same interview. Too many writers are obsessed with cultural diversity, celebrating “every emotional, physical, mental, social disability you could possibly imagine.” This is mostly self-centered nonsense, Williams said. And unproductive. Not to mention boring. To Williams, no amount of social navel-gazing will ever be more interesting than an investigation into how people live in and interact with the natural world.
“Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens,” she said. “We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves.”
Williams is right, broadly. Too much self-care is always a recipe for self-destruction.
Nic Rowan writes from Washington, D.C.
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