October 15, 2020: “The Visiting Privilege” by Joy Williams

Hello hello, Story366!

Back in grad school in the mid-nineties, I read Joy WilliamsTaking Care. I remember thinking it was a good book. A poet friend of mine saw me reading it, though, and said something like, That’s the best story collection. That’s really the only good story collection. It’s the only fiction I’ll read. That kind of stuck with me for a long time, and from that moment on, I associated Taking Care with poets, as being a book poets really liked—based on that one analysis. Joy Williams? Poets really like her. She must write really well. Poetically.

Today I read from Joy Williams’ The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, out in 2015 from Knopf. Williams had four collections of stories before this, and I read a couple of those, though not since some time late last century. It was interesting to revisit some of those older stories today, like those from Taking Care, to try to figure out what this poet saw in Williams’ work, why he would say what he said. Not like it’s a big shocker that someone would like her work—she’s another one of these story masters, and I’m finally getting to her here—but to say it’s the only story collection worth reading? Hmm.

Williams definitely comes from that hyper-realism era of the seventies and eighties, her stories about real people doing real things. To capsulate her further, she really goes for that “taking care” motif, as the four stories I read today all deal with someone taking care of someone else. I started with “Taking Care,” which I know I read in the mid-nineties, but was happy to read again. “Taking Care” is about this guy who’s wife is dying, some sort of blood disorder, and is told from his intimate, interior perspective. While he’s taking care of his wife—she goes into the hospital and stays for a long time—he finds himself also looking after his granddaughter, his own daughter off gallivanting (as my mom would say) out of the country. So, suddenly, this old man is caring for a couple of generations of his family, a unique situation for him to endure.

Pammy, the protagonist in “Health,” technically cares for herself, though she’s 12 and her parents are looking after her from afar. She caught tuberculosis while on a vacation in Mexico, and her parents are doing what they need to do to make her well. She’s also spoiled a bit, getting all kinds of gifts like tanning sessions—a lot of the story takes place in the tanning booth, as a matter of fact. We get a lot of interior here as well, and Williams has fun writing from this frantic girl’s point of view, capturing a hyper youth as she deals with all kinds of strange, new territories.

“Honored Guest,” another title story from a previous collection, is a dual-POV story about Helen and her mother, Lenore. Lenore is dying—or at least believes she is—and Helen, her teenaged daughter, is taking care of her. Lenore is getting the most out of her final days, but this story is interesting in we see the dynamic of mother and daughter as they interact, attempt to live out what little time they have left together. They navigate topics like wolves, tattoos, and the Ainu culture, and overall, it’s just nice to see how they love each other, even when it’s strained.

I’m focusing on the title story for this post, “The Visiting Privilege.” This one’s about Donna, a woman who’s good friend, Cynthia, has been institutionalized. Cynthia gets pretty mad about stuff and can overreact, such as setting fire to her boyfriend’s Corvette when she realizes that he’s married. Donna starts visiting Cynthia as soon as she’s committed, coming each and every day.

Donna finds that Cynthia is in a group with a few other women, two teenaged girls and an older lady who rooms with Cynthia. Before long, Donna is talking more to the old lady than she is to Cynthia. Once the relationship is established, Donna seems to be visiting more for the old woman than she is for her lifelong friend. The woman even has her run errands to her house for her, to pick up things. Donna does so immediately and without question, fetching this and that, glad to be needed. This includes one of those old motion-detecting watchdog devices, the kind that places a tape of a dog barking when someone approaches the house. The woman thinks of it as her dog and Donna obliges her.

When Donna returns the next day with this dog, she finds the woman’s side of the room empty, the beds stripped; the woman died the night before, during dinner. Cynthia is the one to tell her this, leading to an overdue confrontation, the Why do you come her every day?-type of conversation. Maybe it’s because she’s an angry person at heart, but Cynthia bitterly rejects Donna, and in turn, her visiting rights. When Donna tries to visit the next day—to see whom, she’s not even sure—she finds her privileges have been revoked and she is escorted from the facility. It’s a lovely tale of a woman seeking to end her loneliness, doing whatever she can to put someone in her life.

Joy Williams defines her characters in The Visiting Privilege by how they relate to others. These stories intimately explore how real people react to others, on a daily basis, particularly when those people are in need of help. It’s an interesting theme for a collection—a collection of collections—and in this writer’s skilled hands, the stories are elegant, intense, and gorgeously composed. Glad to have revisited Williams after so long away. (As for that poet friend’s proclamation? I like this book, like Williams, but yes, there are other fiction books worth reading as well.)