The fantastic, elastic human heart

Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to Book Review and the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.

“It sounds as though you had a very fortunate childhood until you didn’t,” says Francine to her gardener, Dennis, who seems to have an obsessive crush on her. He’s been telling Francine about his childhood nanny, Darla, of whom Francine reminds him, and her response in many ways sums up Joy Williams’ penetrating and thoughtful collection of stories, “Honored Guest.”

In these tales, Williams, an incomparable novelist (“State of Grace,” “The Quick and the Dead”) and short story and essay writer, gives us characters who have good lives until they don’t -- people who revel in fortunate experiences until fortune gets tired of them, who believe they’re embracing life fully until they realize they’ve missed the mark. Her characters wake up one morning and look at friend or spouse and suddenly wonder how they got to where they now find themselves -- how life, so pleasant just a little while ago, has become stultifying.

In “Charity,” Janice and Richard are on vacation, sightseeing in the Southwest. At the White Sands National Monument, Janice wants to marvel but finds herself oddly blocked: “Janice felt that she was still capable of awe and transfiguration and was uncomfortable when, together with Richard, she felt not much of anything.” Though Richard doesn’t seem to be deliberately thwarting her enlightenment, neither is he the most soulful partner one could wish for. He drives through White Sands without bothering to get out of the car; the place enervates him. “Don’t you get tired of [people’s reverence] out here?” he asks Janice. “Everything’s sacred and mysterious and for the initiated only.... It wears me out, to be quite honest.”


It’s hardly a surprise, then, when Janice takes off and leaves Richard for what she thinks will be only a moment or so, having come to realize that she doesn’t know this man at all. “She was really no more acquainted with who he was than she was familiar with the cold dark-matter theory, say, or the origination of the universe.” What she does not realize is that she may be leaving the relationship forever.

That’s how change happens, Williams’ pithy stories suggest. You take for granted the life you have, or you complain and moan about the problems besetting you, until a turning point comes -- a seemingly insignificant moment, after which your life is never the same. The changes in these stories are not necessarily tragic, though tragedy is occasionally present -- they’re just life.

The protagonist of the collection’s title story is a teenage girl named Helen, who is nursing her dying mother and preparing to go live with the father she hardly knows. Helen hears about a custom of the Ainu -- aboriginal people of northern Japan -- who capture a bear cub each winter and turn it over to a woman to nurse. After it is weaned, the cub is lavished with food, petted and played with, treated in all respects as an honored guest. The bear cub, we learn, will soon be killed, in a sacred ritual brutal in its violence. Helen thinks about this tale. “To live was like being an honored guest,” she concludes, until the fateful day came and “[t]hen you were no longer an honored guest.”

“Congress,” one of the stranger and more delightful stories in the collection, centers on Miriam, who is living with Jack, a forensic anthropologist. When he constructs a lamp stand out of the hoofs of a deer, she’s horrified by it. Soon thereafter, Jack suffers severe and irreversible brain damage; he’s no longer the Jack she knew. Slowly, Miriam begins to form a romantic attachment to the lamp: “She had adapted readily to being in love, and then adapted to not being in love anymore. And the new climate was, well, this situation.” If you fall in love with a lamp, the author seems to say, so be it!

This emotional malleability is the great beauty of the human species. We adapt. We find a way to love. We take for granted; we regret; we are crushed by bitter disappointment. But we go on, in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of way. In wonderful, stark relief, Williams gives us a glimpse into this pliability of the human heart, its marvelous ability to withstand adversity and accommodate whatever comes next. *