Collected Stories by Tennessee Williams
There is a game I used to play on tour with my band. We used to book shows in basements in lots of small towns, and that meant we spent a lot more time inside our van than not inside it. So we had to come up with ways to fill the time. The idea of the game is you just say the name of a movie that sounds like it could be about shitting/taking a shit/shit itself. Like, for instance: The Blob, The Remains of the Day, Splash. Sometimes the more of a stretch the titles were, the better. Or anything with the number two in it. Two if By Sea. Jurassic Park 2. City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. And that’s it. You just say movie titles. People think about shit. People laugh. It’s like a lot of car games, except maybe it’s the stupidest.
It’s something you maybe wouldn’t play amidst polite company. If your life ever came to a moment when it would make sense to play this game, you’d play it amongst friends. And not just any friends either. Only those friends who you can just be around. Where there is easy mutual trust. It’s a rare thing to find these people, I think. Or, maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s something I’ve always found challenging.
Which is what maybe brings us, via a long sweaty van trip, to Tennessee Williams’s Collected Stories. It’s a heavy book—like, it’s a brick. 574 pages, fiftyplus stories, introduction by Gore Vidal. Cover by Andy Warhol. It was published by New Directions in 1985, two years after TW’s accidental death (by swallowing the cap to an inhaler he used for illicit drugs). It contains a lot of essential pieces which formed the basis for TW’s groundbreaking mid-century plays, and also, thankfully—especially the later stories (which he wrote while famously drunk and high on speed)—are wonderfully disgusting and gleefully trashy.
In “The Inventory of the Fontana Bella,” published in Playboy in 1973, a blind 102 year-old Principessa Lisabetta von Hohenzalt-Casalinghi ludicrously careens around her palace at night “in a state of existence that seemed to be nuclear powered,” barking orders and pounding her crotch at the thought of sexual reunion with her long-dead lover, Sebastiano. On a whim—perhaps sensing death may be near?—she calls an inventory of her villa, the Fontana Bella, and sends for a group of experts to appraise it. Before the inventory gets under way, the Principessa exclaims, “Oh Christ, oh, wait, I have to relieve my bowels, put two screens about me and bring me a pot! Chop chop!” She then shits in a bucket, orders her physician to examine her shit, and continues on. The climactic moment of the story comes with the Principessa battling a deranged stork— which, in her deranged state, she mistakes for her lover Sebastiano, which she kills by inserting its beak into her vagina, fucking the bird until it suffocates, and then dying. It’s completely nuts. And it’s wonderful.
Of course, some of his best stories in the collection take it down a million notches to mix TW’s cartoon humor with the lovingly-observed characters for which TW is famous for. In “Two on a Party,” an alcoholic “spinster” (all relative, of course—in the story she’s somewhere in her late 30’s) and a younger (but not much younger) gay hustler team up to cruise the Times Square bars in search of sailors. Over a series of blurry benders, they form a complicated friendship—two outcasts confronting their longing for intimacy, support and actual physical protection against the violence of the straight world.
Near the end of the story, TW puts it like this:
They’re two on a party, which has made a departure and a rather wide one.
Into brutality? No. It’s not that simple.
Into vice? No. It isn’t nearly that simple.
Into something unlawful? Yes, of course!
But in the night, hands clasping and no questions asked.
Yes! A life of crime! Of difficult love! Oh, my heart! The director and author (and Pope of Trash), John Waters says in his introduction to TW’s memoirs, “I yearned for a bad influence and boy, was Tennessee one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny.”
I laughed out loud at a lot of the stories. I mean, actually, out loud. Like I made noises with my mouth. This doesn’t happen all that often while I’m reading—and it has everything to do with the way TW constructs shared intimacy in his stories. He’s a charmer. And a bad influence, no doubt. Reading TW’s stories is like a handsome (but maybe slightly balding) waiter just took you aside and whispered something dirty in your ear. Or invited you and your dining companion to meet him in the bathroom stall. There is a strategy in that intimacy. It is an intimacy of damaged and marginalized people finding space to let their guard down. To breathe. To heal. Or if not to heal, then to at least have some company while you keep the party going for one more night.
I don’t know if anyone ever made the case for any of Tennessee Williams’ movies or play titles for the movie-title-is-actually-about-shit car game. A Streetcar Named Desire could kind of work? Kind of a stretch. Baby Doll? Suddenly, Last Summer? Orpheus Descending? Maybe Night of the Iguana would fit? The Ass Menagerie? Not really in the spirit of the game—but, you know, if you suggested it, from the back of a van somewhere on the interstate between the middle of nowhere and the outskirts of some other similar nowhere, I’d give you points for trying.—Justin Carder