Book Review: Ninety-Nine Stories of God By Joy Williams
Joy Williams takes readers to a celestial gathering. Among those on the guest list are God, Chekhov, South Korean scientists, OJ Simpson, mystics, a war correspondent, artists, neighbors, a German shepherd breeder, two boys with BB guns, and a rabbit named Actually. The flash fiction in Ninety-Nine Stories of God reads as recollections of conversations held at a dinner party, where the eclectic and the everyday commingle to produce a constellation of human experience.
In these ninety-nine vignettes, Williams weaves the divine into the ordinary. The title prompts readers to seek the supreme being in each episode as they provide glimpses between the mundane, the extraordinary, and the tragic. In “Ignorance,” a pig saves a drowning man who, moments before, was enjoying a ham sandwich. A child and a lion discuss death and irony in “Fog.” In “Neglect,” God recounts observing a hot-dog-eating contest, and in “Inoculum,” He is in line for his shingles shot.
The cast of characters is recognizable and relatable due to their dislocation from geography and temporality. The environmentalist, the humanist, the parents of children with cognitive disabilities, and the child who was killed in a random drive-by shooting could all be played by familiar neighbors, friends, family members, and people in the news. Empathy for these fleeting and imperfect characters arises from Williams’ ability to—in so few words—find solace in the random and ephemeral nature of existence. Williams reflects on life’s mysterious impermanence in “Jail,” when a character says to another character in their shared jail cell, “The Book of Q invites us to contemplate the fleeting duration of all that we cherish, the brevity of life and the inexorability of death.” The same could be said for this collection, which invites readers to reflect on their curious lives on earth as they flash before them.
Williams’ tone rarely delineates from the perspective of a distant observer, even in the stories told in first person, so that her theology never feels didactic. Stories in which “the Lord” appears are placed nonchalantly between stories about animals, characters both fictional and historical, and morning dew. God is at once everywhere and nowhere to be found. However, Williams plants clues as to where to look. In “Buick Lesabre,” A couple finds themselves driving across the country from Wyoming to Mexico. Confused, they ask, “Of course, the usual questions arose: Who are we? What have we become? Wherein and why have we been cast? Whereto are we hastening? From what have we been freed?”
About halfway through the book in “Naked Mind,” an unknown narrator gives a rare moment of clarity, as if Williams is addressing the reader directly. She writes,
We can never speak about God rationally as we speak about ordinary things, but that does not mean we should give up thinking about God. We must push our minds to the limits of what we could know, descending ever deeper into the darkness of unknowing.
A learned roadtripper, lifelong German Shepherd owner, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, Joy Williams insists that God is omnipresent yet inconceivable, familiar yet beyond the grasp of comprehension. She brings her readers down to earth by shining light on life’s glorious banality and death’s eternal mystery.
Riley Mang is in her last year at Pitzer College pursuing a Media Studies and English & World Literature Dual Major and an Anthropology Minor. She soothes her graduation anxieties by whistling Patti Smith to her scoby, teaching herself how to surf, and reading contemporary American fiction.