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Joseph McElroy | The Nation

Joseph McElroy

Author Bios

Joseph McElroy

Joseph McElroy is the author of Women and Men (Dalkey Archive), The Letter Left to Me (Knopf), A Smuggler's Bible and Plus (Carroll & Graf), and other novels. His Actress in the House will be published this month by Overlook Press (April 2003).

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He says he is not a fighter--or rather, the narrator says it; he's "an
onlooker," someone who steps aside, "frail," "not the savior of the
world," not a "prophet," speaking only to himself, liv

It is life that Joy Williams is after in this book about (at times overwhelmingly or bizarrely) death. Ill Nature means her anger, her attitude, but it really means sick Nature. Abused animal life and habitat land, ruined water, strangled forests, proxy environments, corrupted science, lost mind; for it is we, the caretakers, who are the most ill of all in what we do to the life that's being flushed away, along with 7,000 acres daily lost to development, which only begins to tell the story. Intrusive, pointedly detailed, painfully entertaining and likely to outlast some considerable portion of the life defended in it, Williams's bill of particulars has its own emphasis. It arises from the writer's own Florida and the perhaps chance occasion of some of these essays, polemics and emblematic bulletins. But it adds up to a jeremiad classically American and on-the-edge uncanny, at a time of waste, greed, skewed self-love and a death wish unquestionably global--a plague even of petri dish and adoption babies in one of her population pieces that is contrarian with a vengeance.

Williams's book often urges action. Yet it seems sometimes to doubt the possibility of action, given where we are, which is not only the land and our deeds and joint procedures but, as I read her, includes a spiritual outage for which there may not be a secular solution.

On this side of that divide much is familiar. Disposables achieving an awesome afterlife. Baboons in vises getting their brains beaten in on behalf of head-injury research. A tobacco industry pumping experimental smoke down the windpipes of thousands of dogs and rats that weirdly did not get cancer. A new image like a vision tells us that natural disasters are upon us that are likely the end of us, though we may not go first--a "deranged" heron, "white as robed angels," "beating its head against a tree knocked down by bulldozers to widen a road." I learn from the essay "Neverglades" that that famous Florida ecosystem park of ours is down to 20 percent of what it once was; came the '28 hurricane, then a vast Army Corps of Engineers dike built to "protect" 700,000 acres, in fact to create an "agricultural area" to be dried up for the benefit of Big Sugar; then decades of shrinkage promoted even into the Clinton years under the pretense that the dying park, its water beshitten by dairy farms and cane-growers' used irrigation water back-pumped through it, was being cleaned up by the alliance of federal and state government and the agricultural interests that had managed to kill it. It gets complex, as this kind of capital operation tends to.

The "earth-unfriendly" "corporate environmental community" is now apparently supported in one way or another by the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and other "ECOWIMP" organizations. As for the "most reactionary of all," what could one expect from an Audubon Society named after "the premier avian slaughterer of his time"? What have you done when you bring the gray wolf back to Yellowstone, an area abandoned in the winter by most animals, and remove it from the endangered species list to please ranchers and hunters? Florida subsidizes staged "youth hunts," kids shooting deer from stands in wildlife management areas that help them "understand man's role in the ecosystem."

Animals are almost at the center of this book. How does it happen that hunters who already kill on millions of acres of public land are now invited into more than half of our tax-subsidized wildlife refuges to kill a million animals a year? "Wildlife-oriented recreation," it is called. "Nowhere is the murder of animals, the manipulation of language, and the distortion of public intent more flagrant." This from the famous hunting piece "The Killing Game," originally in Esquire, of all places, where Williams lets the apologists convict themselves with their own self-serving Orwellisms: Conservationists "harvesting" venison; population control of "underutilized birds" for which special seasons are designed; "recreational" lovers of beautiful creatures exercising "a God-given right" to kill for the fun of it--that glamorous "primitive," the bowhunter, leaving half his (or her) hits to die out of reach; or the ludicrously overequipped (and underinformed) mobile strategists using doe-urine sex lures, spreading popcorn on the golf course to draw geese, snowmobiling moose, outflanking animals that are resting, eating. And "as for subsistence hunting, please."

But this tour de force seems a mere parenthesis when we come to Williams's animal rights essay. Here the apparent inconsistencies of the radical position only strengthen the devastating case against cruelty to other sentient beings. Vegetarians, be reminded that animals are usefully turned into our clothes, condoms, anti-aging creams, Jell-O and such drugs as a menopause estrogen booster (derived from horse urine, an industry in itself that breeds 75,000 doomed foals annually). "Animals are everywhere in our lives" but distanced "so that our remaining compassion and ethical concerns for them" become "irrelevant." Tools in the lab, their suffering "a theoretical abstraction" for engineers genetically reinventing them, some not even defined as "animals" now by the Department of Agriculture.

Williams sardonically describes "The Animal People" as opponents see them (as totalitarians subtly offensive to many groups, for example, to Jews with the misuse of Holocaust analogies, to feminists on "right to life"). We can't act morally toward animals because they can't act morally back, it is urged. We know, though, that animals fear death when they face it. "They care for their young and teach them...they play and grieve...they have memories and a sense of the future." "Suffering aside," the thinking goes, "when people care too much about animals, it's suspected that somewhere, somehow, some person is being deprived of generic love and...attention because of it." The subtle difficulty of change is no light-bulb joke. What would it take for "the mass mind" to find, for example, "the vivisector's work totally unacceptable"? That switch will take more than logic. It may require a flash of intuition, an "instantaneous electron orbital exchange," in Thomas Kuhn's image of a gestalt shift in our thinking, Williams muses ironically. In any case, a new "moral attitude toward a great and...mute nation," whose mysterious otherness has no more saved them than if they could speak in "the tongues of angels" to remind us of our vanity--as a human (so says the preacher in Ecclesiastes 3) "hath no pre-eminence above a beast," for we "have all one breath."

A contrarian always on the edge, Williams hears voices. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's 10-by-12 cabin having its say: "Not a hideout, a home..." "Where is he, where's all my stuff...books...typewriters...?" Wrapped up in an Air Force hangar in Sacramento, "this can't be existence.... We're both being stored." The people from Exxon "still haven't paid the five billion dollars they were supposed to." Eerie, unwanted offspring: "I never asked to be built." Unlike those thousands of Thoreau cabins, "No clone we," which, in the author's slightly undergraduate Henry-bashing, extends to (by contrast with Ted's manifestoes) Walden's prose. Willing to plead not guilty at the risk of a jury's death sentence in order to present his views on technology, Ted got to be instead "a paranoid schizophrenic awash in delusions"--the worst one being that technology is the vehicle by which people are destroying themselves and the world.

"What? It's not true?" asks Williams, sidestepping with rhetoric Kaczynski's real delusion that you can fix things by blowing people up. "The writer," she instructs us in "Why I Write," "cherishes the mystery...protects it like a fugitive in his cabin." In the most upsetting "essay" of Ill Nature, one must remember that she is a powerfully original writer of fiction: "Hawk" leaves us less with an explicit idea than with the presence of a consuming event. Nonfiction in the tone of its remembering, its lacerating report nonetheless turns upon implication and yields a curious confessional and pivotal darkness. It recounts how her German shepherd, her "darling" whom she loved (though not without discipline) and whom she had named not, like her previous dogs, from the Bible but "from Nature, wild Nature," attacked her and was put down. She thought when she took off her bra "the nipple would fall out like a diseased hibiscus bud." Her hands badly bitten, the fractured one required immediate surgery to prevent bone infection, which, from the bite of the dog, could kill her.

The wildness so valued in her thinking as a quality diminished in our denatured world has somehow requited her, and the terrible strangeness of the dog's act, eventually ascribed to a possible brain tumor, is pondered in writing not only great in its free exactness but curious in its clues. At the outset she is mysteriously ill (her "body had turned against" her, a fatalist with no health insurance), but she and Hawk "kept to our habits." "He had presence. He was devoted...engaging," but "I really knew nothing of his psychology.... surely, I believed, he had a soul." She tells us she is a Christian, her father a minister. Kierkegaard warned, "The closer you keep to God and the more involved you get with him, the worse for you"--after all, He abandoned His own child. Cryptically we are told, "It ended badly for my mother's and father's dogs over the years and then for my mother and father." And there at the beginning of the essay, like a strange or false lead, we've had a quick collage of facts about the pianist Glenn Gould! His impenetrable individuality, his notorious eccentricities--hands he bathed in wax; his St. Francis medal; half his estate left to the Toronto Humane Society. In him is some genius Williams decides is unknowable and in his music she listens to, though less dangerous than the unknown that will shortly almost destroy her. Later, in bewilderment, shock, grief, the music she listens to is healing, though still unknown.

Is this a reconversion story about utter unhappiness, when life has no value and when, "crucified to a paradox...[giving] up reason," one can (according to Kierkegaard) "make a bid for Christianity"? She had dreamed a prevision of Hawk dead, and now she dreams she is walking with him among the dead. Were these visits part of a pattern of being too close to a wildness you love but do not understand, suddenly precipitated into waking life violently, the attack of this Other marking a state of grace she must pay for? Is real experience grace? I do not know.

Something like this is to be found in the willing, grotesque and marvelous journey through a psychic wilderness of the girl in Williams's first novel, State of Grace. In her recent The Quick and the Dead, "We must see things we do not see now...and not see things we see now," observes a rehab nurse given to "grim homilies about [an]...absent-minded God." The visionary suddenness in "Hawk" is like Flannery O'Connor's; the intimacy with the animal unpredictable and sensed is all Joy Williams, who believes it's a writer's job to disturb and who grants, to my mind a bit too readily, that the writer may be a vehicle (what did Plato say in the Ion?) with only the dimmest knowledge of what she bears. A music, say--an art like that of Orpheus, that great musician who nonetheless could not call his love back from death and instead pursued her there. Gould dead at 51; Williams asks, like Rilke, what she has done with her life--she couldn't even keep her pet alive. Perhaps she has served, as she says in "Why I Write," "not [herself] and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us."

Less "great," though more helpful and even more interesting, is "One Acre," her development-surrounded land in Florida that she finally had to sell. But on her terms--no subdivision, buildings occupying no more space than the two structures there already and half the property (once owned by a botanist) left as a wildlife habitat. This huge profusion of plants and trees the essay describes in magnificent detail: the extravagant banyan, the stubborn palmetto, the mangrove, "my tangled careless land," a small ecosystem she is determined to let live like the birds and animals, the rats living in "the fronds of the untrimmed palms." It took some doing; witness the utter simplicity of the enforceable document she drew up for the incredulous real estate agents to show prospective buyers. Who did she think she was? The flailing arguments typify attitudes and language targeted in other parts of Ill Nature. At last, for much less money, she finds her buyer who understands and is content.

The essay expresses a tension between privacy and community in the context of land. Land? A "fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals," in Aldo Leopold's mid-twentieth-century and now ideal and virtually impracticable definition, which "has had about as much effect on the American conscience as a snowflake." For by another, "land is something to be 'built out,'" and "privately the landowner makes decisions that render land, in any other than financial terms, moot." What privacy is that? Is it, along the lagoon, the community of condos, their owners often absent? Wasn't it privacy Williams wanted?--buying three lots in 1969, two more in 1972? "I did not feel that the land was mine at all but rather belonged to something larger that was being threatened by something absurdly small..."

In the first sentence of the essay, "I had an acre in Florida on a lagoon close by the Gulf of Mexico," she has put herself up against Isak Dinesen's "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills," the famous opening of Out of Africa (for some reason marred here by a misprint). Williams, who is not much interested in icons as icons, notes that Dinesen had believed in some "drivel" about hunting as "a declaration of love," though later found it wrong. Yet when Dinesen had to leave her farm at last, she wanted (though she was dissuaded from it by the pleas of friends) to shoot her animals, which "belonged to her, as had the land, which she ceased to own when it became owned by another." Williams adds, "Of course, it became hers again through the writing about it.... Once again, Art, reflective poesy, saves landscape." I call that a dig. But, to take nothing away from Dinesen's great nonfiction book, one earned. If killing is no way to keep control, is writing? A modernist, nay, iconic literary figure certified by Ernest Hemingway, Dinesen expressed in her fabulous fictions an ethos brave, aristocratic and sometimes cruel. This typically in her best-known tale, "Sorrow-Acre," where land as an abiding character is inseparable from the ancient and fixed relation between peasant and lord, threatened in that story by new democratic ideas at large. Joy Williams writes differently, in an American language full of our Day-Glo, our killer culture, our most unseemly and unseamlessreality, whether or not it is shadowed by God. no sniveling reads the sign in a funky bar noted in Williams's The Florida Keys, maybe the most beautiful, intelligent, profound guidebook ever written. In this world, for better or worse, she does what little she can. She has conserved by deed her acre. "I had persisted. I was well pleased with myself. Selfishly, I had affected the land beyond my tenure. I had gotten my way."

"Writing," on the other hand, "has never done anyone or anything any good at all, as far as I can tell," observes the daughter, reflecting on her efforts to make her mother comfortable during her painful last illness. "Nothing the daughter, the writer, had ever written or could ever write could help my mother who had named me," writes Joy Williams near the end of this troubling, fascinating book, Ill Nature. Of course, not all readers are terminally ill.

Blessed with a great subject, afflicted with it too, J.M. Coetzee has remade its meanings in the light of metaphor often no further from us than our own bodies.