Beloved by some, maligned by others, Williams’ (The Visiting Privilege, 2015, etc.) second novel, first published in 1978, has a new 40th-anniversary edition.
We meet Pearl and her infant son, Sam, in a Florida bar. Pearl is drinking gin and tonics and having thoughts like this: “You cannot keep things the way they are. They go away. They change. There has never been an exception to this rule. No mercy has ever been shown.” She’s running from her husband, Walker, on whose family’s private Northeastern island she has spent the previous year. She’s running because she does not want Sam raised under the influence of Walker’s brother, Thomas, a sinister “man of the world” who raises children (“a dozen…more or less”—none biologically his) “according to his interests.”
Pearl, however, wants Sam “to be a simple child, her child. Not like the others…” who seem “like deadly little flowers to Pearl, budding Satans, quoting Dante before they lost their baby teeth.” But, drinking in the bar in Florida, Pearl knows that “Walker would find her.” She is correct. After Walker’s “caress [pushes] her halfway across the room,” they board a flight back north.
But, in a classic Williams turn, the plane crashes into the Everglades, Walker is killed, and Pearl returns to the family’s island with a child who may be Sam but may be some other, less-loving child—one infant exchanged for another in the aftermath of the crash. What follows is part fable and part drunken nightmare. (Indeed, the novel seems to intentionally defy categorization; one can never be sure that the register with which you’re reading is the register with which the book wants to be read.)
It is a loose and uneasy tale of violence, innocence, childhood, motherhood, alcoholism, grief, origins, endings, comedy, murder, metamorphoses, and God. If that sounds like a lot, it is; but when a writer works with sentences like these, she can do what she wants: “Her feeling…was curved as a ball, a belly, a noose.
There was no beginning to it. No end. Come unbidden. Part pain. Part comfort. That was love….To love was only to understand death.”
An elusive but enchanting work by one of America’s greatest authors.