Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams

Change up in the routine, folks. Kim’s book for this week is taking longer than she expected, so I’m going twice in a row. Kim will be back next week, and the week after, so no worries. Anyway, on with the show:

Willie and Liberty rent a home of their own. However, they spend much of their time breaking into vacation homes of the wealthy in Florida. They don’t really steal anything; they just live there for a while. Sooner or later, they leave and break in somewhere else. This is the basic set up for Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Douglas Coupland)

Willie and Liberty broke into a house on Crab Key and lived there for a week. The house had a tile near the door that said CASA VIRGINIA. It was the home of Virginia and Chip Maxwell. It was two stories overlooking the Gulf, and had been built with the trickle-down from Phillips-head screw money. Willie achieved entry by ladder and a thin, flexible strip of aluminum. Crab key was tiny and exclusive, belonging to an association that had an armed security patrol. The houses on Crab Key were owned by people so wealthy that they were hardly ever there.

Liberty and Willie saw the guard each morning. He was an old, lonely man, rather glossy and puffed up, his jaw puckered in and his chest puffed out like a child concentrating on making a muscle. He told Willie he had a cancer, but that grapefruit was curing it. He told Willie that they had wanted to cut again, but he had chosen grapefruit instead. He talked quite openly to Willie, as though they had been correspondents for years, just now meeting. Willie and Liberty must have reminded him of people he thought he knew, people who must have looked appropriate living in a million dollar soaring cypress house on the beach. He thought they were guests of the owners.

There doesn’t seem to be much point to what Willie and Liberty are doing, but perhaps that’s because we see this through Liberty and she doesn’t really seem to think there is a point. She’s just following Willie. They’ve been together since they were children and her parents dumped her with Willie’s family. However, Willie is drifting further and further away from her as time goes on:

Willie stood up and leaned toward Liberty, his hands on the table. His hands were tanned and strong and clean. His wedding band was slender. Liberty remembered the wedding clearly. It had taken place in a lush green tropical forest in the time of the dinosaurs. “I’ve got to shake myself a little loose,” he said. “Do you want the truck?”

“No,” Liberty said.

“Just a few days,” Willie said. “Later,” he said to Charlie. He left.

“A butterfly vanishes from the world of caterpillars,” Charlie said.

Liberty saw Clem get up and look after the truck as it drove away. He trotted over to the restaurant and peered in, resting his muzzle on a window box of geraniums. Liberty waved to him.

Much of the book seems to center on isolation. Willie seems isolated unto himself, unreachable. Liberty is isolated from everyone but Willie, and increasingly from Willie. Everyone they run into seems terribly isolated and needing connection, connection they seem to want to fight by connection to Liberty. For the most part, she isn’t interested. It just happens and Liberty and Willie continue to drift:

“Okay,” the woman said, rolling the beer can across her midriff, “I will tell you the worst thing that happened to me. I was just a little kid like you and I was at the circus. I was having such a wonderful time at the circus. The thing I liked best were the aerialists. I didn’t like the clowns and I didn’t like the man who caught the lead balls on the back of his neck and I didn’t like the tigers, I liked the aerialists. I loved seeing them up so high, flying through the air, sequins on their costumes flashing. I wanted to be an aerialist. Well I was at the circus and a man on a trapeze missed the net and fell into the audience. He fell on me and broke my collarbone. He smelled terrible. I mean, really terrible, like a big mouse or something.”

The woman chuckled. This little group depressed her. She wanted to tell them everything. The truth was, she was worried. She could still bleach her hair and meet a man in a bar, maybe even manage a little water-skiing, but before her lay increasingly untrustworthy memories, hangovers, and pain during intercourse. A tooth had cracked the last time she ate barbecue. Innuendoes were being made. Diagnoses were being written.

“That actually wasn’t the worst thing,” she said. She really was high as a kite. “That happened to a little kid. The worst thing that happened to the lady you see before you was that she was robbed. She was robbed, but the didn’t take anything. Broke into her house and didn’t take a goddamn thing.” She folded her beer can in half with a pop. “I’m going to turn the light off on you now,” she said. Turning out the light on them, standing there, shutting the door on them, their worst things unsaid, unknown, unaccounted for, made her feel a little better.

Breaking and Entering is a challenging book to evaluate. Much of what is significant movement is subtle and difficult to pin down. There isn’t a neat cycle of conflict and resolution, but there is movement, interesting characters, and a surprising amount of human grace inside. A lot of people want things wrapped up simpler and get frustrated by Breaking and Entering. It’s good, though. If you can be patient and not insist on the book working a way that it just doesn’t simply because other books work that way, you might come to love Breaking and Entering. I’m not exactly an adoring fan here, but I was highly impressed with what I found.

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