On “The Yard Boy” by Joy Williams
“The yard boy was a spiritual materialist” (p. 47). That’s the first line of this short story from The Visiting Privilege, the much-lauded 2015 collection of Williams’s stories. This one meditates caustically and with steadily increasing trippiness upon the difficulty of living ego-free.
The tone is caustic, caustic, caustic towards the yard boy throughout; while ever-so-much-more ingratiating towards the reader. “Mock him but love me,” says the tone. The yard boy patently misconstrues — - der, what a nimrod! — the basic tenets of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa from the get-go. You are not supposed to be a spiritual materialist. You are supposed to avoid the fundamental mistake of spiritual materialism; i.e., believing any spiritual belief or practice can bring relief from suffering. I know this just by looking spiritual materialism up on Wikipedia.
The yard boy must learn the hard way, which consists of curious and curiouser interactions with the landed gentry of the Florida Keys. Mrs. Wilson, for example, is a wealthy and horny customer of fabulous vacuity. The narrator pauses from giving the yard boy a hard time to absolutely wipe her out in a single horticultural gesture: “She looks up at the mangoes, hanging. ‘Uuuuuh,’ she thinks” (p. 49).
What is worse, a stinking rich Uuuuuuh-thinker, or a yard boy who does his own play-by-play — “Close the mouth, shut the doors, untie the tangles, soften the light, the yard boy thinks” — while supposedly living in the Now?” The answer is Both.
Just as bad are customers Johnny Dakota, whose interests are limited to “heroin and intangible property” (p. 50), and Mr. Crown, a once thriving Wild West illustrator who responds to a dip in business by opening fire on the construction workers building a finer house than his across the street. Bad sex, drugs and violence come at the yard boy from all angles at once, and no spiritualism can can protect him.
Only plants can. But do they? He is a manual worker whose hands smell of fertilizer and whose jeans “smelled of tangelos,” as the narrator reveals in one of the many comments designed to be withering of character while winning of us readers’ esteem. Maybe this works, a little. It is kind of fun to read a narrator who can presents backstory thusly: “He once told the yard boy that his mother had died from plucking a wild hair from her nose while vacationing in Calabria” (p. 51). But it is not good clean fun. It is like laughing along with a bully who may nevertheless be a meta-fictional guru worthy of contemplation.
Let’s consider the situation from the point of view of the rabbit’s-foot fern that becomes the yard boy’s companion after his sullen girlfriend breaks up with him. He describes the fern to his landlady as “insane,” saying it has “seen something terrible” (52). This makes her ditch the fern out by the garbage, where the yard boy claims it for his own. The yard boy has seen terrible things too, things “he wouldn’t dream of telling the fern even though the fern is his only confidant” (p. 54). It is sad to have only a fern as a confidant. It is also sad, or sad-ish, that the yard boy gives up his rented room, sells his truck, and spends his days on the beach. The fern “wants to help him any way it can,” but the yard boy is beyond help. He has become like a garden gnome amid “plantings of cabbage palms and succulents and Spanish bayonets” (pp. 54–55). The Spanish bayonets are the winners in this story, because they are the ones that get away. It says right here that they “uproot themselves and move out.”
But where does their liberation leave us? Surely the yard boy is not just an acid casualty tripping out on the beach, watching the plants go by. Surely there is something more to be gleaned from all this absurdity, this mad-as-a-hatter anti-Wonderland. Centuries of pastoral imbuing of human emotion upon landscapes have perhaps given our narrator the right to have the landscape get up and walk away, having delivered a “message of retribution” (p. 55).
Retribution for what, though? Well, maybe it’s a literal rendition of that old stoned Neil Young song, “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s.” What happens when the physical setting rebels against character? Stay tuned to climate change and we’ll find out together. I still think it would have been nicer of the narrator to treat the yard boy like a human being; for example, by giving him a name… but it doesn’t seem like the point of this story is to be nice. It seems like the point or points are more like the spikes of the Spanish bayonets, “spikes that end in black tips like stilettos.”