Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Belle Boggs revisits Joy Williams’s novel Breaking and Entering.
In college, I lived in thrall to a professor named Sally Doud, who taught my first fiction workshop classes. Sally—that’s what we called her—was tall and angular, with coarse blonde hair, an unfussy stylishness, and a husky laugh that resounded out of her office, where I went as often as I thought reasonable. The office was tiny—smaller than any of my other professors’ offices—and windowless, with off-white cinder-block walls. It may well have been a closet before Sally wedged her desk inside. There was a vent with a fan, and she would blow cigarette smoke so carefully in the direction of the fan that the fire alarm never went off.
I probably went to Sally’s office more than was reasonable—I thought that once every two weeks was okay—because her office was the place where I most believed that I could one day become a writer, and because I loved every book she recommended. She introduced me to Andrea Barrett and Ron Hansen and Jayne Anne Phillips, and would often pass along Vintage paperbacks that I hope I returned. I know there is at least one I did not return, because I still have it. The familiar white cover shows an unsmiling blonde woman in a blue string bikini, standing behind a stately white dog. She’s opening French doors, just a crack, and in the spotless glass you can see palm trees, a pelican, the beach. The scene is cool and vaguely menacing.
Published in 1988 and set in the Florida Keys, Joy Williams’s Breaking and Entering is a strange waking dream of a novel. Liberty and Willie, young married drifters, spend their days breaking into expensive, unoccupied houses, which abound along the Gulf of Mexico. They drink the owners’ champagne, shower in their enormous bathrooms, sleep in their beds, read their romance novels, attend parties at their private clubs. Willie and Liberty are not homeless—they have a rental they don’t like much, or bother locking, which sits under a giant banyan tree that Liberty greets when she returns to it because “it did no harm to keep in touch with the vegetable world.” Willie and Liberty are unemployed but have some money from his parents, from whom they are estranged. Willie says that his occupation is saving people—literally saving them, from drowning or choking or car accidents. He is aloof and cryptic and prone to disappearing; when Liberty asks him to lie down with her in one of the borrowed beds, he misunderstands her as asking for sex, when what she really wants (and what he doesn’t offer) is comfort. She fears their joint “fascination with the buzz saw, the stove’s red electric coil, the divider strip, the fierce oncoming light.”
Liberty, for her part, has saved Clem, an enormous Alsatian dog she found, near dead, as a puppy, and befriends two young children, Little Dot and Teddy, whom she cannot save. She is reserved, a depressive, “one of those wives,” Willie tells a chatty, clueless guard at one of the gated communities they break into. Liberty is preoccupied with her own barrenness: “Stolen houses made her think of babies all the time.”
Breaking and Entering is not an overtly political novel, but it makes you think about capitalism, waste, and the general threat posed by adult humans to everything they touch. Little Dot’s mother ties a rope leash around her daughter’s wrist to keep her from wandering off. Teddy is shuttled from activity to activity but prefers climbing Liberty’s banyan (“There are twenty-eight places to sit or lie on that tree,” he tells her). Houses breathe chilly air conditioning into the atmosphere; pelicans become tangled in fishing line and starve. The people in positions of relative power—the gatekeepers, the parents, the wealthy homeowners—are poor caretakers of anything but what they own. As Liberty notes, “They protected their possessions as though they had given birth to them.”
Breaking and Entering is a perfect novel to read on the cusp of adulthood, when trespassing remains an active interest, even a pastime. I trespassed all through my childhood—through fields and woods and sometimes into old barns and abandoned homes. In college, too, I was interested in rooftops, cemeteries, night swimming, examining specimens in the back rooms of the medical school. I liked to be anywhere that was empty and off limits, and I cultivated, too, an appreciation of the kind of odd, stylized encounter that Williams represents. I lived off campus, with a roommate who dropped out of school on the first day and would get up in the middle of the night to go to work at a bakery. I was always searching for jobs that would pay my rent while also allowing me time to read—I tried paid medical experiments, but fainted at the sight of needles. I worked during the week as a salesclerk in a fancy boutique, on weekends as a character at an amusement park. This was the person Sally Doud saw outside her office, every other Tuesday or Thursday, looking for a new book or words of encouragement. I wonder whether she noticed that I forgot to return this book, and whether she replaced it.
Because Breaking and Entering is also a fine novel to return to as an older person. A sort of test: Who have you become? Where are your allegiances now?—and do you really live a life in service to those allegiances? Do you turn away from strangers, from your own loved ones? Do you like to pee in the sand and look at the stars (like Little Dot)? Do you climb trees (like Teddy)? Are you preoccupied with owning things?
What do you make of a paragraph like this:
In the silence, Liberty could hear Clem drinking from his water bowl. One has these assumptions, Liberty thought, these foolish assumptions about life. This is the day that the Lord hath made—that sort of thing. It proceeds from sunrise to sunset. Dare, don’t adapt. Rejoice. Be truthful. Get enough rest. Take it easy on the sun and salt. Love. Reflect. Praise. Learn. As a child, Liberty had learned how to write with ascending accuracy between increasingly diminishing lines. That’s a child’s life. A child starts with intense admiration for the world. It’s him and the world. But there are too many messages. Most are worthless, but they still must be received. One must select and clarify. One must dismiss and forget. One is in a lighted room, then it turns dim. Inexplicably. One’s intense attachment turns to fear, then hate, then guilt. Finally, sorrow.
Do you sit in mystery, in wonderment? Does that paragraph make you cry? Do you recognize the “increasingly diminishing lines,” the light that “turns dim,” the path from attachment to fear to sorrow?
Joy Williams was forty-four when Breaking and Entering was published, two years older than I am now. It was her third novel, her fourth book. Recently my friend sent me a beautiful black-and-white photo of her—maybe taken around this time—rowing a boat with a German shepherd as her passenger, smiling big, in some river or tributary. Looking at it I think of my professor, Sally Doud, and her sly but welcoming smile, her door always open—just a crack—the air around it faintly clouded by smoke.
To be young is to be in a space that belongs, always, to someone else. The young are always trespassing, and getting older seems to be carving out space, possessions, territory that is ours alone. Life’s encounters become less stylized. But the genius of Joy Williams, and this novel especially, is that her allegiance remains steadfastly with the young, even as she recognizes that there is a tide of life that carries us away from wonder and in the direction of fear.
Perhaps by watching the young we can relearn our wonder, our attachment to one another rather than to things. The other day I was in a poetry writing workshop at my university. The poet Kaveh Akbar was leading us through a series of exercises designed to connect us back to our unconscious, back to a sense of awed bewilderment. It was a two-hour workshop, held in a large room we had reserved in our library, a place where students often gather to work on homework or read between classes. We kept the door propped slightly open, and near the end of the workshop, as Akbar read a long, intensely personal poem of his own to us, a student wandered in. Akbar paused in his reading and said, “Hello, welcome.” The student nodded and said, “What’s up?” then sat down in one of the few remaining chairs.
I watched the student, curious to see whether he would get up and leave—he hadn’t registered for our workshop, and clearly was there by accident. But he stayed, and took his backpack off as Akbar returned to the poem, and during the question-and-answer period he raised his hand. “How does your mind go to a place,” he wanted to know, “where you can write this poem?”
It was an unanswerable question, in its way, but important. It was the question of a person who has not lost his admiration for the world or his ability to trespass. It was a reminder to keep the door open, always.
Belle Boggs is the author of the essay collection The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, and the short story collection Mattaponi Queen. The Gulf, her first novel, was published by Graywolf on April 2, 2019.