This Week's Reads

Joy Williams, John Leland, and Nadine Cohodas.

Honored Guest: Stories

By Joy Williams (Knopf, $23) If Joy Williams' publisher made cigarettes instead of story collections, it would slap a consumer warning on Honored Guest. After all, not since Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World has the inhalation of narrative felt so much like a narcotic—alluring precisely because it is toxic, dangerous. And Williams is so good that she merely has to wave her characters' melancholia under our noses, and we crave more. For 10 years Williams held her fans in abeyance, only to emerge in 2000 with the eviscerating novel The Quick and the Dead. She followed with a collection of essays on the environment, Ill Nature. Guest is the third in this flurry of publications, and it vibrates with a similar anxiety over sickness and death—emotional, psychological, physical, and environmental. These 12 stories are littered with needles and unguents, abused over-the-counter drugs, and dogs that are neglected. Animal lovers will find this book deeply upsetting. This preoccupation with death is not a new one for Williams (it animated her 1982 collection, Taking Care), but in this new volume it has sandblasted her prose to a smooth strangeness reminiscent of Paul Bowles' best work. In the title story, a dying woman and her daughter lock horns. Bloated and ill, a stranger even to her own dog, the woman feels like she is disappearing. "An honored guest," she says. "To live was like being an honored guest. . . . Then you were no longer an honored guest." Many other characters here have faced down death, their own or someone else's, and part of Williams' genius is to re-create the cracked-porcelain quality of their consciousness. Recalling his past mental states, the narrator of "Ack" says, "I might as well have been stumbling about in one of those great whiteouts that occur in the far north where it is impossible to distinguish between a small object nearby and a large object way off. In whiteouts there is no certainty and every instinct is betrayed—even the birds fly into the ground." Were Guest the work of a younger writer, it might have embraced the voluptuousness of self-destruction, its high hilarity, too. But the stakes are high for Williams' characters. They reach out to one another desperately—and time and again they fail to connect. All the while, they sense that big clock in the sky ticktocking behind them. As the narrator of "The Other Week" says to a man not her husband: "It's what I always think when I see cows grazing in the fields or standing in those pleasant streams . . . that they have a very nice life until they don't." With these bleak and boldly singular stories, Williams maps the emotional lives of men and women perched on that precipice between living and oblivion. We finish them hurriedly to find out which direction they choose. JOHN FREEMAN Joy Williams will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 21. Hip: The History

By John Leland (Ecco, $26.95) Partly by probing the questions essential to the book's concept (i.e., "What exactly is hip, anyway?") and partly by leaving an easy conclusion up in the air, John Leland's history of what he believes to be the concept that shaped America's pop culture will frustrate anyone looking for a simple checklist. Hip: The History doesn't pretend to be a who's who or, probably just as importantly, a who's cooler than thou. Instead, New York Times culture reporter Leland is primarily concerned with how certain attitudes that define the term came to shape it. He starts in West Africa, with the Wolof word "hepi"—meaning "to open one's eyes"—before moving on to slavery, where talking in code to keep knowledge hidden away from white slave owners became, in Leland's eyes, the precursor to modern-day hipness. Racial mixing is the key to the modern concept of hip—shared, secret experiences, more intense and exploratory than that of the dominant (read: white, cornball) culture. By Leland's lights, hip is about exploring the seedy underbelly of life in order to gain understanding that you can't get from skimming its surfaces—all of which unites such seemingly disparate cultural figures as Raymond Chandler, Charlie Parker, the Beats, Tupac Shakur, Chet Baker, and even Herman Melville and Mark Twain. Amid many such references, Leland also injects plenty of himself into the proceedings—or more accurately, plenty of his own attitude. Hip expends many words making fun of, and even railing against, the self-destructive self-involvement that certain aspects of hip entail (most notably heroin addiction). And there are a lot of unanswered questions here—something Leland notes in the book's intro, in which he instructs hipsters/readers to look for their own name in the index; if it's missing, he apologizes, "Somehow, it fell through one of the many holes in this book." His conclusions on modern-day hip can also be annoyingly lax. Essentially, corporations have sold the concept back to us so much that in essence everyone is hip (tell it to my mom). Still, such inconclusiveness makes a kind of sense, since the connections Hip explicates seem more like the beginning of a sly, furtive dialogue on the subject than a square last word. MICHAELANGELO MATOS Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington

By Nadine Cohodas (Pantheon, $28.50) The box-set CD reissue boom, along with new exposure in movies and TV commercials, has helped buoy the careers of some veteran singers—think of Etta James and the appearance of her "At Last" in everything from Northern Exposure to the Jaguar ads. Meanwhile, great dead artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday occupy entire shelves at the record store. Yet Dinah Washington (1924–1963) seems forgotten among such company. A household name in mid-20th century black America and a crossover star as much at home with string-laden pop ("What a Diff'rence a Day Makes") as with bawdy blues ("Long John Blues"), Washington too often goes unheard these days. Born Ruth Lee Jones, she possessed a huge voice that mixed belting bravado with an outsized tenderness, often in the same song. Washington's vinegary tone allowed her to imply much about love and sex: how much she needed them, how much they puzzled her. "The poor man's Lena Horne," Jet once proclaimed her in an article unearthed by biographer Nadine Cohodas. "Church folks hear her records and get the idea she's singing a gospel song. The jitterbugs go for her because she puts a terrific beat in what she does. The 'juice-heads' and 'winos' swear she's singing directly to them." Queen comes more than 40 years after Washington's death, and Cohodas aims to remind us how much the singer meant, and could still mean. Digging deep into session lore, she also examines the reality of a woman who was at once a glamorous star and a road dog who put tens of thousands of miles on cars each year. For all her bad-girl sass and a gossip-column image that rivaled Marilyn Monroe's, Washington was a traditionalist. Cohodas suggests that even her seven marriages were the product of her upbringing in the church—better to be wedded than not, no matter if for only a few months. (Although she also managed to fit in plenty of affairs when there was no husband at hand.) Queen also closely examines the cost of Washington's obsession with keeping thin: her untimely death resulted from an accidental overdose of diet pills. Cohodas helps provide the respect that Washington craved—but was often unfairly denied—during her abbreviated career. To listen to her today is to realize how the church folks, juice-heads, and winos had it right: She was capable of singing to any audience, in almost any idiom. RICKEY WRIGHT

 
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