A fun thing to do would be to break into a hotel and replace all the nightstand-drawer bibles with copies of Joy Williams’ new-ish book, Ninety-Nine Stories of God, just to see who notices, and to see what the people who notice do about it. The confusion is intentional: It’s sternly hardbound and grimly biblical despite its smallness, with the word God rendered in a font so large and unnerving that it takes a long time to even get around to the illustration below it, of four pink-tongued dogs in a rowboat on a choppy open sea.
Basically, it looks like a devotional or a Bible-study sorta deal; it is very decidedly not that at all, and at least one profoundly unsatisfied Amazon customer, who goes by the username “Mom of 8,” has been duped, and will not stand for it. “This book is terrible!” Mom of 8 writes. “The title is completely misleading. It is a series of very brief stories that are random, and not about God or faith. This is the worst book that I have read in years.” One star.
Williams would probably take that unwelcome surprise and indignation as a compliment. She’s in her 70s, wears totally awesome sunglasses 24/7, and loves her dogs, which she shuttles in her Toyota from Arizona to Wyoming to Maine and back, either bringing her typewriter with her to these home bases or stashing one at each location. The New York Times Magazine, in a memorably eerie 2015 profile, described her as a “writer’s writer’s writer,” with four black-comic novels and a daunting armory of gently nihilistic short fiction to her credit, exemplified by last year’s The Visiting Privilege, a huge collection of 46 tales full of dead dogs, teenage-girl besties who hate each other, wayward divorceés, bumper-car accidents, obscene sex acts involving tiramisu, and other such bleak hilarities. Here is Joy Williams’ idea of a breakup letter, in full:
My ego is too healthy for real involvement with you. I don’t like you. Good-bye.
It’s pretty fantastic, though also a lot to deal with, in terms of volume and psychic weight. Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a 2013 e-book in print for the first time via Tin House Books, is far quicker and easier, aiming to unsettle you, but in a weirdly soothing way. The number in the title, at least, is straightforward, with just shy of 100 brief vignettes as short as one sentence and no longer than a few pages. You can easily read the whole thing on a flight of any length, though it’s liable to make your flying experience way more anxious, as you ruminate on the tin can with wings you’re traveling in and the simple, fallible, pathetic human beings steering it.
The God part of the title is trickier — Mom of 8 certainly has the “random” part right. It’s true that “the Lord,” a character just as feeble as all the rest, shows up in quite a few of these jams, or doesn’t. (“But the Lord never showed up,” ends no. 60, entitled “PARTY.”) The Lord’s concerns here are quite pedestrian: Consecutive stories begin with “The Lord was in line at the pharmacy counter waiting to get His shingles shot” and “The Lord had always wanted to participate in a demolition derby,” respectively. He prefers hanging out with animals as opposed to people, though the bats and the wolves, at least, are quite leery of him, with good reason.
But more often, God doesn’t seem to enter into it at all. Other topics: O.J. Simpson, Ted Kaczynski, humiliated elephants who set themselves on fire, a pet rabbit named “Actually,” a child and a lion discussing death and irony, the various foibles of famous artists and philosophers and war reporters and such, etc. A story’s title is withheld until the end, often delivering what amounts in this universe to a punchline. Here is no. 61, in its entirety:
We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.
The award for Best Closing Line is a tie between “The divorce cost seventeen times what the wedding had, and the children didn’t turn out all that well either,” and “Without reflection, he put out his hand and extended the middle finger.” There is no trophy.
It’s hard to say what makes all this so calming and consoling. If you could articulate exactly why, it probably wouldn’t work. Williams is a fierce environmentalist who, like the Lord, seems to prefer wolves and bats — and especially dogs — to most people. “You have made only brutal contact with Nature,’’ she wrote in a 2001 book of angry essays called Ill Nature. ‘‘You cannot comprehend its grace.” The same goes for her writing, as perplexing as it might be. The best approach is to read Ninety-Nine Stories of God all in one shot, and then dip in randomly thereafter, at your darkest and dimmest hour, finding solace in, say, the entry that ends, “There were two funerals but only one trial.” It will make you feel worse, for obvious reasons, but it will also, somehow, make you feel much better, for reasons that aren’t obvious at all.