Down & Out Books
244 Pages; Print, $14.95
With Inferno, George Williams delivers a sophisticated exploration of human darkness, a deeply unsettling, complex world from which no reader could emerge unscathed. It is a world that is difficult to inhabit, except that we may already live there, and the purpose of his hard-hitting prose is to penetrate our delusion.
Williams’s collection is irreverent, shocking, and dystopian. It defies easy categorization—too sophisticated to be mere horror, too inconclusive to be political. It is darkly comical, and above all, literary—concerned with the question of living a meaningful life in the midst of a brutal and insane modern world. But there is nothing prescriptive or moralistic about Williams’s vantage point. He seeks to elucidate the problem without stooping to inane solutions. He holds up a funhouse mirror to what we think of as the real world and provides only the barest hints that one might find reprieve or redemption from the hellish reflection he provides.
From the horrendously violent to the frankly hilarious, Williams follows a plumb line of madness through individual lives and institutional frameworks, searching for the seed of the human capacity for evil, callousness, and self-deception. The result is a gripping array of stories, populated by serial killers, wannabe terrorists, madmen, and ordinary people alike. Williams’s language is economical. His dialogue is unmarked, clipped, and witty, held in place by rare moments of delicious exposition and accidental philosophy. His prowess is undeniable. If he has either peers or influences in modern literature, I know not of them. His prose, particularly the devolving word salad of his most disturbed narrators, seems more directly related to the frenetic lunges of Ginsberg poems than to other contemporary literature.
In the midst of their insanity, the characters of Inferno often speak pure, lucid truths. Williams uses a variety of narrative styles to slide the lens of our readerly perception in and out of identification with the madness he portrays. First person accounts, letters, exposition, dreams, and drug-trips blend a surreal space where we identify sometimes as our horrified selves and sometimes as the horrifying “other.” The resulting instability is sometimes disorienting, but I am inclined to believe Williams means to disorient the reader at times, to disturb and even to shock us out of our safest presumed identities. Read in the light of our modern news cycle, Williams’s stories cannot be ignored as fantasy.
The collection’s first and last stories—“California Poppy” and the titular “Inferno”—demonstrate an evolving understanding of the relationship between collective insanity and personal violence. There are madmen who align themselves with ideology, who profess righteous indignation, and there are madmen who are pushed past sanity by the calamity of modern life.
The vigilante murderer in “California Poppy” is the sort of madman with history and righteous indignation on his side. He is a Mexican-American who has sought out the descendants of San Juan Capistrano—a celebrated “gringo” who was responsible for the rape, murder, and disenfranchisement of thousands of Mexicans. The intersection of this man’s desperation, the presence of two drifting college kids whose gullibility landed them in the middle of this altercation and the absurd equation by which a family’s life might serve as a kind of reparations for racist genocide builds to a heart-stopping final scene. But, even in the midst of this page-turning drama, Williams gives voice to a grander perspective and allows that the reality of the human condition might be liberating rather than simply nihilistic. Faced with his death, the father of the kidnapped family addresses his would-be murderer:
We’re not responsible. Even if we were, we’re not. Not now. We did nothing to you or anyone you’ve ever known. All of them, they’re all dead now. The whole planet alive then is long dead, just like every Angelino, Spaniard and Anglo before them. . . . And we living, we’ll all be dead soon enough, leaving behind our children. Those too will die, and their children after them...