Through a Glass–Darkly

state of graceState of Grace, by Joy Williams

Doubleday 1973, Vintage 1990

reviewed by Seana Graham 


According to the Paris Review interview with Joy Williams in 2014, a reviewer for The New York Times admitted that Williams’ work was “probably not for everyone.” And the epigraph from the Greek poet C.P.Cavafy that opens State of Grace gives fair warning that it will be a bumpy ride:


Ah! don’t you see
Just as you’ve ruined your life in this
One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth
Everywhere now—over the whole earth?

As the novel opens we gradually learn that the narrator, Kate, is living in a trailer with her new husband Grady in some deep woods not far from the Gulf Coast. We also learn that she is pregnant. But if expectant, it is not so much the baby that she is waiting for, as a choice on the part of Grady:

I wait for his decision as nothing can proceed without it. It is the choice between life or death, between renewal or resumption. I have no fear of him. We are in love. Of course I could only hope that he would kill us, that is, Daddy and me, because I have a feeling, though I know it’s mad, that we are going to go on forever. But it’s too late for that now. I must be realistic. Even if he traveled there, he would not find Daddy. Even if he did, even if Daddy made himself available, he would not be able to deal with him. God and the devil are the whole religion and Daddy has both on his side.

There, on the second page, you have the whole back story, and even if you don’t think you know what Kate is saying, on some level, yes, you do.

State of Grace became our reading group selection this month because one of our members had happened to read a recent article about Joy Williams in the New York Times Magazine, which got her interested in the writer. By coincidence I had just gotten an email from a new online publishing venture called Catapult, which happened to feature a short story by Williams called “Cats and Dogs.”  Here’s the opening line:

Lillian was telling her daughter about the period in her life when she killed cats.

No, probably not for everyone. When seeking recommendations at the bookstore I used to work at, people would often say, “I don’t want anything  too depressing.” Those who go to literature to be consoled about life should not turn to Williams for this. In the pages of this novel you will find much to disturb you and very little sense that everything is going to turn out all right. Animals suffer, black men suffer, even sorority sisters suffer. But there is also love—even if, as Kate’s father has taught her, “loving is good preparation for dying.”

I have rarely read a book with so many striking sentences, both of the descriptive kind and of a philosophical nature. It was interesting to read this book while being in the South, as I was last week, as it so effectively captures something underlying the sultry days. Or maybe that’s an illusion that comes from reading too much Southern Gothic literature over the years. Here’s one example, almost at random:

There are big friendly mules in the field behind the fence and beside the chapel is the preacher’s pickup truck with a brace of shotguns hanging in the rack. For everyone is a hunter here, even the meek; everyone is prepared for something terrible coming out of the black hot southern afternoon that they will have to protect themselves against.

For  me, this is definitely a book worth a second read.


State of Grace at Vintage Contemporary

New York Times Magazine article on Joy Williams

Paris Review interview with Joy Williams

“Cats and Dogs”: a short story by Williams at Catapult