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  • Village of the Damned
  • J.D. Smith (bio)
Inferno Stories
George Williams
Down & Out Books
244 Pages; Print, $14.95
The Selected Letters of the Late Biagio Serafim Sciarra
George Williams
Down & Out Books
258 Pages; Print, $15.95
George Williams
Down & Out Books
270 Pages; Print, $15.95

George Williams' America is the Times Square of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), arguably the last grown-up (not "adult") film before Star Wars and its spawn helped to undo the work of the GI Bill and other initiatives of mass literacy and turn us into twelve-year-olds collecting action figures. Venality rules the day from pimp-infested doorways to pimp-infested campaign headquarters, and in a social corollary to Gresham's Law, bad intentions drive out good. Perhaps more precisely, Williams' America is that era's Times Square metastasized through Robin Leach's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and the sophistry of management consulting jargon, whose most notable achievements include paving over extensive wetlands and some of the world's richest farmland in favor of jerry-built McMansions and strip malls whose tenants seem to consist largely of payday loan providers and operations offering cash for gold. In the cinematic version of events this refuse-strewn landscape called forth Travis Bickel, who hoped for and attempted to bring down a hard rain that would wash the streets clean. Travis Bickel is, in turn, a latter-day reimagining of John Brown, homegrown American terrorist, and scourge of Harpers Ferry, or Girolamo Savonorola, igniter and tender of the Bonfire of the Vanities intended to purge Florence of its golden excrescences of iniquity and inequality.

Williams has certain advantages over these. Besides being non-fictional and alive, he has already racked up a career longer than all three combined, and he shows no signs of slowing down in his creation of hallucinatory fables and thought experiments that consider how the aggrieved parties and avenging angels of his creation might address a historical moment that is both mad and maddening.

In Williams' work, the former often appear as letter writers in a deft updating of the epistolary tradition for an age of hot online tempers and entitled consumerism. A story in Inferno, "The Ethicists," a darkly hilarious send-up of the advice column "Ask the Ethicist" in The New York Times Magazine, fields questions posed by our loquacious Jungian shadows. One, a professor considering a mass poisoning, writes:

My wife is a professor too, tired of her job, so we thought, rather than take early retirement, we'd take out the town's citizens, all of the students, faculty, and staff, and live on their stolen wealth, collect disability—we're going to poison ourselves, but just [End Page 25] so—and enjoy our remaining days living in the most beautiful city in Mexico . . .

Would you trade the lives of over a thousand American nationals and a few misguided foreigners too stupid to realize my college is a complete fraud, the degree utterly worthless in today's job market, an institution run by a dominatrix and managed by a devil with a fetish for removable heads of fashion mannequins?

His inquiry is fielded by, rather than insightful and temperate philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, a panel of figures from history and urban folklore who display less interest in the matter at hand than in their obsessions and mutual resentments. Locusta, first-century concoctress of poisons, advises

since we are talking screenplay here, why not give yourselves some trouble, to maximize tension and create a sense of impending doom in the wretched creatures we call moviegoers, desperate to escape their ever emptier selves, hollow barrels in which not even homeless drunks are able to build a fire.

All-purpose regular guy Dan the Man answers questions with questions such as "[W]hat kind of stupid effing question is this? You ain't got the 'nads to commit mass murder? What is your fucking problem?" No fan of women, he later adds "There's only way to deal with women like Locusta. Kill her...


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pp. 25-26
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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