I first discovered Jincy Willett through a benefit anthology of short fiction, compiled by David Sedaris, entitled Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005). The collection is a line-up of heavy hitters, such as Amy Hempel, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Dorothy Parker, and Tobias Wolff. I was beginning to explore short stories in a serious matter when the book was released, and it exposed me to a breadth of writers I otherwise would have taken much longer to uncover individually. Nestled amongst these celebrated pieces is a story entitled “The Best of Betty” by Jincy Willett.
When I got the Sedaris anthology I had begun a job traveling to rural high schools in east central Illinois administering college readiness tests and workshops. I spent much of the downtime of proctoring consuming short stories, trying to figure out how to write one.
The day after I bought the Sedaris collection happened to be the first time I administered one of these computer-based exams. I read Hercules as the students tested. I got through a couple of pieces that sounded serious, because that’s what I though short stories had to do, and then I stumbled onto “The Best of Betty.” The story covers the correspondence between a newspaper advice columnist and those she is supposed to help. She uses her cruel wit to vent her frustrations on readers with darkly comic results. As the letters go back and forth it becomes obvious that there is far more beneath the surface of both columnist and readers, and it is all unraveling.
Betty’s readers initially come across as shallow, suburban morons, such as Petunia, who frequently writes in with ridiculous gardening solutions (that would probably end up on Pinterest today).
Why not scissor the cups out of your old brassieres and set them out in your annual garden as little domes to protect fragile seedlings? It looks wacky but it sure does the trick!
Why the heck not? And hey, don’t throw away those brassiere straps! Kids love to carry their schoolbooks in them, especially once you’ve disguised their embarrassing identity with precision-cut strips of silver mylar cemented front and back with epoxy, then adorned with tiny hand-sewn appliques in animal or rockstar designs. Use your imagination!
Sitting in that high school computer lab, I started laughing. Aloud. Really loud. I couldn’t help it – the story is authentically funny. I had to step out of the room to compose myself. “The Best of Betty” would have to wait until later; more serious stories by better known authors would have to fill my time until I could get home and discover that Betty doesn’t simply bully her readers. She wants the middle-age, middle-class women who write her to break out of their complacency and take charge of their lives. And she reveals that she needs to do the same.
“The Best of Betty” is from Willett’s collection, Jenny and the Jaws of Life. It originally appeared in 1987, but went out of print. It was resurrected in 2002 after lobbying by Sedaris. Since then it has been reissued a second time as more readers have discovered Willett’s talent for finding humor in the mundane sadness of educated, upper-middle class America.
Humor is not all that Willett offers. The laughs have been stirred into stories of commonplace darkness, of lives lost not in dramatic tragedy or fantastic events but the self-absorbed and self-eroding life of 1980s suburbia. In “The Haunting of the Lingards,” a woman sees a ghost, and the experience drives a wedge between her husband and their routinely blissful marriage. As the husband watches her discuss the incident at a dinner party, he realizes that “[h]e had never admired her before. It was an awful feeling.” “Julie in the Funhouse” is told from the perspective of a brother returning to the home of his eccentric childhood to bury his sister. She remained in their parents’ house and raised a family of her own, only to be murdered by her bored and indifferent children. While the story sounds as if it could only contain misery, the brother’s recollection of his sister’s sardonic wit and the adventures of their unstructured upbringing overpowers the mourning.
A story indicative of the collection’s mix of humor and pain is “Melinda Falling.” It is narrated by a lawyer who has lived his entire life in the upper class. He becomes enamored with a woman he sees fall down a set of crowded stairs. The woman is average in every way – social status, intelligence, accomplishments, tastes, looks – except for clumsiness, at which she excels. Her fall breaks him out of his boredom with his wildly successful career and posh lifestyle. He professes his love to her almost immediately after the fall:
“Dear Lady, you have just provided me with the only moment in my entire life when I was not bored almost to the point of lunacy. With a single wordless act you have shown more daring, more devastating social awareness, more sheer imagination –”
“I tripped,” she said.
The couple is never truly happy – the narrator is more in love with the idea of Melinda, and Melinda simply goes along with his infatuation for a while. Until she finds love.
A summary of each story in Jenny and the Jaws of Life might make you wonder why we even bother making a life at all, when it is all doomed to end in sorrow. And then, with a plain, straightforward line, Willett makes you laugh. It’s a cruel practice, yet you keep going back. You feel bad for these characters, because they seem doomed to failure. But you also sympathize because their lives could be yours if you made one or two different turns – turns which may not all be in the past. But you must laugh, not at the absurdity of life, but at the steadiness of its ridiculous march. Like Melinda, life in Willett’s world is “as deliberate, stolid, and graceless as a basset hound.”
The reaction I had in that Midwest computer lab was the one I had re-reading this collection: genuine. Willett’s command of voice, beautiful sentences, and strong ear for dialogue create a world that I wanted to unfold. She also achieves the hardest thing for any writer – she makes the reader authentically laugh. Making a reader sad is easy. Maker a reader angry is easier. But to make someone laugh out loud, in a public place and an inappropriate time, is a steep task. Willett shows again and again that she can make the climb. Jenny and the Jaws of Life is a collection you should check out.
Willet, Jincy. Jenny and the Jaws of Life. Foreword by David Sedaris. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2002, 1987. ISBN 0-312-30618-0 (paper).