Book: Gardens of Earthly Delight
Author: George Williams
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro (sort of), short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s hard to put into words…
Availability: Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Comments: The title of this book references the Hieronymus Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delight and it is in reference to Bosch that I can best explain how it is that Williams is odd. Williams clearly structured his stories in various manners so as to hark back to that famous triptych – man in paradise, man in sin, man in Hell. In fact, the cover of this book is a fragment of the center panel of The Garden of Earthly Delight – my favorite part of the painting – and is why I decided I would read this book when RDSP contacted me regarding some of their newer titles last year. The cover features, in the midst of extraordinary and intense revelry, a naked couple, reminiscent of Adam and Eve before the Fall. They are sitting in a glass bubble, separated from the chaotic carnival around them, but the bubble is cracking. Before long they will be in the world, no longer in a safe place of innocence.
With a cover like this, I had certain expectations of the stories within the book and Williams delivers. He writes stories that indeed mimic the progression from paradise into hell. But there was an element to his writing that recreated the cracked glass bubble in a manner I could not have expected. Williams is a minimalist writer, his words echoing the simple, uncomplicated affection the two naked souls in the glass bubble expressed in the midst of sexual revelry.
Additionally, Williams has a muffled quality to his writing that ordinarily would have irritated the hell out of me, but somehow worked well with his subject matter and overall style. There is a remove in his writing, a distance between not only the reader and the story, but the writer and the story as well. Williams writes without using any sort of conversational punctuation, a style I loathe, and Williams is a writer whose minimalist approach definitely keeps the reader focused on the surface of the story. I never once felt a deep kinship with any of the people in this book because I was observing, not absorbing. Minimalism as a rule does not interest me much, but Williams’ style is so in keeping with Bosch’s theme conveyed via the couple in the cracked bubble that I want to read more of his work and see if this was a happy accident or quite deliberate. I hate to invoke his name because he comes up too often as a reference every time anyone reads minimalism, but there is a definite Raymond Carver feel to these stories
Actually, if I think about it, this collection is a Raymond Carver/Flannery O’Connor hybrid. You can best see that confluence in the story I liked best in the collection, “Dickson.” In “Dickson,” an unnamed couple have an undetonated nuclear missile that had washed ashore for them to find, despite the Air Force’s frenzied attempts to locate it. They show it in small towns in Tennessee, charging a fee to look at it. They meet up with a Pentecostal preacher who persuades them to let him use the bomb to show in his sermons in exchange for 20% of the tithes the preacher takes in. Whether or not the bomb is real will spoil the story but even avoiding spoilers still leaves plenty to discuss.
It begins with the couple having breakfast in a small town diner.
Goddamn it, she said.
Goddamn it, she said, this is good.
How far to Dickson, the man asked the waitress.
We just come off the Trace, the woman said.
How was that.
Nice and green. Leafy.
I like it in the fall, the waitress said. Who said in heaven it’s always fall.
Some damn fool, the woman said.
Excuse me, ma’am. Can’t you see. There are children here.
This is minimalism that isn’t coy – this is minimalism that works. In that passage we learn the woman is rough around the edges and that they are in parts of the South wherein people find hearing the mildest of curse words offensive. This is also a very good example of how Williams handles dialogue in his stories. No signposts, no adverbs, little in the way of “he shouted” or “she cried.” Yet it’s more than enough to get the story where it needs to go.
The couple leave the diner and discuss their plans.
That was good, the man said. We come off the Trace.
I wish you’d try it.
I don’t have any ear for that. You were born to it. You do the chitchat. I’ll make the pitch. And quit swearing.
These people don’t swear? They will when we’re gone.
So in the first page we have enough characterization to take us through the story – these two are up to no good if the townspeople will be cursing when they are gone. We have a raw-mouthed woman who curses but can think on her feet and a man who is better at the rehearsed “pitch.” This is a couple as crooked as a stick in water but that “some damn fool” has me liking the woman, even as I sense she is going to do something unsavory.
They drive a bit and then pull into the Middle Tennessee Veterans Cemetery so they can select names for themselves to use before they make it to the next town.
They walked along row after row.
Forrest, he said. That sounds good. Like Nathan Bedford.
Mash, she said. Patsy Mash. Mr. and Mrs. Nash.
Do I get a first name?
Hubbard? Like L. Ron Hubbard?
One of the greatest, the woman said. He started his own goddamn religion. He makes them pay and pay and pay and pay and pay. He dings the dumbest, the richest, the most gullible.
Just as I was getting the idea the woman was the brains behind the team, her husband pipes up with Nathan Bedford Forrest, a hero still in some parts of Tennessee – his bust is still displayed in the Tennessee State Capitol. The man is willing to use racist inclinations to ingratiate himself with his marks. And we also find out the woman’s opinions of religion – a way to make the people pay and pay. No wonder she hooks up with the preacher.
But maybe, just maybe this couple are quite stupid. Take this scene (and the Jughead is the missile):
My friends, you are looking at a live thermonuclear device with a yield of four megatons. The man took a five pound sledge hammer out of a tool box. Any strike at the right moment could set it off. He lifted the hammer.
No, someone shouted.
Hit it, you son of a bitch.
No, the crowd shouted.
With both hands the man brought down the hammer. The crowd screamed. Sparks flew up.
By four in the afternoon the line for Jughead was hundreds long.
So even if the couple think this missile is a dud or a fake, the townspeople don’t, yet even after watching as the woman egged on her husband to hit the missile with a sledgehammer, they decide to pay to watch as they flirt with death as the man keeps striking the missile. In fact, the townspeople seem quite ready for the Jughead to blow their town off the map. It becomes downright sexual, their yearning to see a missile destroy something, anything.
Punch a hole in that bar-be-que pit.
Pound it like a railroad spike.
Hammer me, a lady cried, and fainted.
Glory to God, set it off.
Eventually, the pair become known to the authorities and they try to play the couple off each other.
Your name’s not Mash.
Of course not.
What is it.
Do I look stupid.
We’ll find out.
By then I won’t give a damn. Tell Patsy I’m working on my accent. We’ll be back on the road in no time. We’ll play it safe. Jayne Mansfield’s convertible. Joe Stalin’s Limousine. The Elvis American Standard.
The authorities then try to hammer some truth out of the wife.
Mr. Mash gave it up.
Gave up what? Smoking?
Gave it all up. The aliases, the con games, the time served.
He ain’t never been in jail, and neither have I, you lying sack of shit. Untie me you bastards.
We’ll untie your hands. That’s it.
Then you’ll get half the truth.
And I’ll leave the story here but know there is so much more to it in terms of plot and sheer humor. It really is like Flannery O’Connor wrote a story and Raymond Carver edited it. Southern culture of rectitude used to criminal advantage by con men, false religion taking advantage of simple folk, minimalism throughout the story and a distant remove so that the reader never risks seeing themselves in the story, as either the con men, the marks or the simple folk who cheer as they tempt fate for no good reason.
Another excellent story in this collection is “Zermatt.” A young woman is being led through Europe by a man who says he can help her find her missing sister. She follows his directions and instructions, and the reader is never wholly sure if she is being led on a wild goose chase or if the man really knows where her sister is and has some sinister intent. Toward the end of the story, I became convinced the young woman was deranged and all of her instructions were happening in her head, but that cannot be the case, as the first page makes clear:
They walked out of the castle gate and down the street to his car.
You are afraid, he said.
Wouldn’t you be.
Yes. But we are here to help.
He got inside and opened the passenger door.
I can’t, she said.
You are her only hope.
How do I know that.
He reached into the back seat and opened a brief case and took out an envelope.
Here, he said.
Insider were pictures of a young woman, twenty, with thick short blonde hair and dark blue eyes. Gold piercings rimmed her ears.
What have they done to her.
So clearly this is not a wild goose chase she is being led on, in the strictest sense, but ultimately it makes little sense, the scavenger hunt the young woman is forced to take part in, following one clue after another, from one destination to the next. It’s quite horrible, but laced with a dark humor that infects most of this collection – in one scene, the young woman comes close to killing a German businessman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is suffering from a dire case of diarrhea and almost shits his pants before she decides to let him go. The next man who crosses her is not so lucky.
In Paris, she visits a famous graveyard.
At Sartre’s flat marble gravestone she stopped and looked to see if anyone was watching. She pulled down her jeans and pissed on it.
Given the existential clusterfuck she finds herself in, I don’t blame her. But at some point as she struggles to find her missing sister, who was at the very least abducted and very likely among the dead, she makes a shocking decision as to how she is going to finally solve the mystery. I initially disliked the ending and found it cheap but the more I thought about it, it seemed the only genuine way to find her lost sister and the only logical conclusion this dogged, fierce, intelligent and violent young woman could reach.
The third story I want to discuss is “Minnehaha.” It’s the story of a desperate man who wreaks havoc in a Hooters located in the Mall of America. A college football game is on the television, it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and even before the story really gets started, I already knew this could not end well. Is there a more godless place than Hooters in the Mall of America on the day after Thanksgiving? By the bottom of the first page, I knew my instincts were right on the mark.
Sir, can I get you anything else.
We’re not allowed to serve two drinks at a time.
One for my friend, then.
She’s on her way, the waitress asked.
No, she went missing nine years ago. Out in California.
I need to discuss this story in a manner that does not give away the plot but shows again how, in this minimalist style, Williams mixes sheer horror with wry humor. Take this scene after the manager has cleared out all the other patrons from the Hooters. The man is speaking to the waitress who refused him a second martini.
Tell him to stay behind the bar.
Stay behind the bar, she said to him.
On second thought, tell him to get the fuck out of here.
Get the fuck out of here, she said.
I’m not going anywhere, he said.
The man took a .45 out of his coat pocket and fired eight rounds into the bottle rack. The manager disappeared beneath the bar.
Then the man tells the waitress his life story as they watch the football game and wait. The waitress is still very afraid because the man is still flippantly making threats.
Please please don’t. I’ll do anything.
Anything, he asked.
Sex, she asked.
Doesn’t matter, I’m done with sex.
We’ll have no sex then. Is that the kind of sex you like. No sex.
As a matter of fact.
We’ll have no sex then.
I’m beginning to like you, he said.
I should also mention that the waitress had earlier wet her pants. This scene is sort of a litmus test. If you found it as amusing as I do, you will largely like this collection.
But it gets even more ridiculous. The man in the bar finds out that the waitress’ boyfriend had asked her to give him back her breasts after she broke up with him because he had paid for her boob job. The man decides he needs to talk to this ex-boyfriend.
Why did you want them back.
Want what back.
You know what.
I don’t. What what.
You wanted them back. What possible use could you have for them.
Look man please don’t hurt her. I love her man. I was just angry. She dumped me for that manager.
I let him go. I should have shot him.
As far as I’m concerned.
The waitress in this story is far cleverer than I had anticipated and nothing in this story goes the way I thought it would and yet when I was finished I realized that like the story of the girl searching for her sister, there was no better way this story could have been told.
There are other very good stories in this collection. A witchy woman gets revenge on a peeping Tom that far exceeds any payment due for his nosiness, a man responding to a personal ad crosses the line from annoying suitor into restraining order territory, a couple in Florida have some unexpected good luck mixed in with lots of conspiracy theory (bonus points for mentioning Jack Parsons) and Scientology, a man who discovers a way to vex a local mosque with noise. Sixteen stories in all means there is probably a story in this collection that will resonate with you.
I honestly don’t understand why I loved this book. I am generally not a big fan of minimalism, though I can see the appeal in Raymond Carver, and even writers like Hemingway. I generally detest any story wherein the bulk of the plot and characterization come from dialogue. And I almost always hate, hate, hate it when writers eschew conversational signposts and punctuation.
But perhaps I do not like these things because I have not seen them done this well. Even without signposts, I could follow Williams’ dialogue and never got confused as to who was speaking when. I didn’t realize how hard he was making me work until I was finished, because he laid so neatly the foundation for me to understand these stories. It seemed effortless, reading these stories, and that is not something I encounter much with minimalism. I never enjoy most minimalism because I have a tendency to read literary fiction with a desire for catharsis. One has a hard time experiencing much in the way of catharsis with minimalist prose – the words themselves hold you at arm’s length. And I had no catharsis reading this book, yet I still found it gripping, interesting, amusing, maddening and deeply entertaining.
So I don’t know why I love this book. Sometimes that which is good can be very indefinite. All I know is that those two naked people in a cracking bubble made me take a chance on this book and I am very glad I read it. And perhaps that is reason enough to think this book odd – individually, every style element Williams employs annoys me and yet this book is excellent in every respect. Highly recommended.