The Still Lives of Wells Tower
Wells Tower is a phenomenal magazine writer. I mean this not as a compliment but as an observation that makes plain both the industry in which he plies his trade as well as the success he’s enjoyed. Nested in my observation, however, is this criticism: Magazine journalism can seem quite free-wheeling, full of larger-than-life personalities traveling to all corners of the globe, where they treat the locals with consummate politeness and then filter whatever they experience through their resolutely ironic, semi-detached attitudes, all to bring back for our sedentary pleasure their rollicking tales, stories told in the key of Hemingway, just updated with some self-deprecation and maybe a little sarcasm. However new these tales appear, they are in fact hidebound by rigid formulae, rules that all the phenoms of the magazine world, from Tower and David Samuels to Tom Bissell and even Stephen Glass (before his expulsion from the fraternity for serial fakery), know well to abide. The first rule of magazine journalism is to entertain. The second is to detect the preconceptions of the editorial class and deliver on them. Every accomplished magazine writer satisfies expectations. Their writing, almost completely barren of original thought yet so rich in sensory detail, fits comfortably into a pre-existing view of the world. Such writing reflects, like a trick mirror, that things are just the way they’re believed to be. The problem is that this is not writing; it’s flattery.
Tower has written for the Washington Post Magazine, Harper’s, Outside, and GQ. He has reported on long-haul truckers, Wal-Mart workers, and a chess hustler in Washington, D.C. As a journalist, he has often practiced subterfuge, attempting to blend into the world he’s writing about and, sometimes, participate in it. For Outside, he paddled the alligator-infested waters of the Wekiva River in a 44-inch tire tube—part of his plan, as he explains it, to remake John Cheever’s short story “The Swimmer,” using Florida’s rivers in place of the swimming pools of Westchester County. For a Post assignment, he got a job as a carnival worker. He thought he would work a complete season, to really get to know the carnies, but he ended up phoning a friend and leaving after a week.
In the fall of 2004, with the country less than wholly transfixed by Senator John F. Kerry’s campaign to unseat President George W. Bush, Tower travelled to Florida to infiltrate the Republican carnival and report on the inner workings of its re-election machine for Harper’s. He came looking for evidence the Bush people were stealing the election, but found little to tut over, save one canvasser who removed a piece of anti-Bush literature from someone’s door and threw it away. Looking for corruption, Tower discovered something better, or at least publishable: people to mock. His article, “Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote,” provided glimpses of actual campaign offices, a real-life political rally, and even a polling place, where, if you can believe this, people stand in line to vote. The article also features countless caricatures of campaign volunteers as well as elaborate descriptions of their appearance: their clothing, their hair, the size and shape of their bodies—all the important stuff.
“Bird-Dogging” was subsequently reprinted in Submersion Journalism, an anthology of Harper’s pieces, which employ widely varying amounts of undercover work to greatly varying success. Tower’s degree of submersion is, at best, negligible. After all, getting himself inside Team Bush, talking his way into what amounts to a tent pitched on the outskirts of the enemy’s camp, looks a lot like volunteering. Campaign staffers are, of course, happy to put another warm body to work, going door-to-door, chatting up voters, and pestering them over the phone, asking if the president could count on their support for a safer, more hopeful world. Tower even protests at a Kerry rally, where he and his more earnest cohorts shout down a group of union men. Asked why he supports Bush, Tower talks convincingly about being in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, about “watching people jumping out of the north tower of the World Trade Center” and how, later, back at his apartment, there was a “sweet, chalky odor seeping in through [his] closed windows.” As Tower speaks, his eyes well up with tears. His boss declares him “good for the media” and taps him to be interviewed by ABC’s World News Tonight about the local effort. The line between undercover reporter, the skeptical individual who excuses himself to the bathroom to take notes, and Republican operative proves difficult to maintain. Like the radio announcer Howard Campbell in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, a man who believes he’s broadcasting encoded secrets to the Allies except, all the while, he’s inadvertently inspiring the Germans with the War’s most persuasive propaganda, Tower does have to do some of the devil’s scut work. And so, as the election nears, it’s no surprise when he’s rewarded for his efforts and given tickets to a rally where Bush will speak.
Tower takes careful note of the president on stage:
His stance is tentative and ungainly: chest thrust faintly forward, arms held out to the sides, hands dangling in a weird limp-fingered way, as though they’ve just been dipped to the wrist in something sticky and he’s waiting for them to dry.
Here are the hallmarks of Tower’s style: the thicket of persnickety modifiers aimed not at rendering a careful portrait but rather at casting a harsh light on whoever gets caught in the author’s line of vision. With his “as though,” a phrase that recurs with alarming frequency in his writing, Tower signals that we’re about to leave the material world, where he’s ostensibly reporting, and enter instead his vast headspace, where deep-left-field metaphors and other literary baubles are forged, not to clarify or enlighten but to put down and entertain.
The writing is so intricately wrought and Tower so precise about his damning that one can fail to notice the errors of logic. In the case of this portrait of the president as a man with something sticky on his fingers, one might ask how fingers are supposed to hang when one’s arms are at one’s sides. Don’t fingers without anything to grip always go limp? Or one might wonder why a man with something sticky on his hands is waiting for them to dry. Wouldn’t such a man wipe or clean them? Most troublingly, though, Tower’s portrait just doesn’t square with what we know of the former president. Much has been said about the body of Bush, the manly man-ness of his gestures, his overcompensating, that way he had of looking like a guy spoiling for a fight or a man lugging invisible bales of hay. Bush is, in other words, a lot of things, but physically ungainly or tentative or awkward aren’t qualities that leap to mind.
For all the novelty packed into Tower’s style, what is most striking is how little his lyrical efforts matter. Tower is a poet of these nothing moments, focusing his attention on periods of silence or stillness. Times ripe, in other words, for him to showcase himself and his style. Before a Kerry rally, he asks his boss if they’ll have protesters there. “He looks me over for an instant before he answers,” Tower writes. It’s that instant that concerns Tower, the small gap he rushes to fill with himself:
Hectoring the Democrats, his silence gives me to understand, is not an officially sanctioned activity of Victory ’04 but is rather a sort of gray-ops tactic not to be discussed with someone who’s just stepped in off the street.
The man’s silence must speak volumes. Never mind that he goes on to tell Tower, yes, they will have people there.
Tower’s eerie ability to extract meaning from silence reached new heights in April 2009, when he published a week-long journal on the literary website Untitled Books. For one day’s entry, he describes watching a talk-show interview with Christina Applegate—the “former blonde starlet over whom,” in Tower’s words, “a generation of American teenagers wrung themselves callused.” Applegate, who had breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, was appearing on the program to talk about her experience. Of principal interest to Tower, however, isn’t what the “famous low tart of American yore” had to say. No, what interests him is “the electric silence in the studio.” Remember, this is silence Tower monitors and interprets from his home, just sitting there, watching his television. He writes:
[T]he electric silence in the studio is not reverential silence honoring her struggle. Rather, it contemplates a more dire question: What becomes of an actress much of whose fame had to do with her breasts after those breasts are removed?
I’ll leave this question, in all its inanity, for others (and perhaps Tower himself) to contemplate and instead focus, like Tower does, on the sounds of silence. Silence is not reverent or irreverent. Nor can silence contemplate a single thing. This is Tower’s bag alone. He projects himself onto the world and then writes himself into its empty spaces.
With 10 days to the 2004 presidential election, Tower reports for duty at a strip mall, where the local Republican headquarters occupies several storefronts. Tower’s stay here is brief, only just long enough for him to catalog his new colleagues, including three teenage sisters who are, he says, “very sweet and friendly, in a faintly Branch Davidian sort of way.” First the compliment, then the shiv. It’s easy to detect in Tower’s writing the influence of David Foster Wallace. One finds it in that “faintly” and in the seeming uncertainty of “sort of way.” It’s present, too, in the description of Bush, where formal diction (“chest thrust faintly forward”) gets spiked with chattier, more colloquial bits (“weird”). Tower can ape the Wallace style ably enough. He’s like a kid on YouTube playing note-for-note copies of great guitar solos. The renditions are technically accurate, but Tower misses what’s key: Wallace’s attention and his high-resolution descriptions were governed by his compassion, by a deep well of sympathy. Wallace didn’t, in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” take a seven-night Caribbean cruise in order to crack wise about his fellow passengers in the pages of Harper’s. He wrote an essay about profound sadness and yawning existential dread, his and others’. Wallace also trained his powers of observation on himself, performing rigorous, often withering acts of self-analysis. Tower, by comparison, always manages to elude his own scrutiny.
The Bush-Cheney folks don’t get off so easily. If Tower speaks to them about the president or the election or their experiences working for the campaign, he doesn’t report it. Maybe there’s no time to talk, what with an exquisite specimen like the “thirty-something guy named Kenny” to consider. Kenny, Tower takes pains to relate, “wears long green shorts, socks pulled up high, and trendy skateboarder shoes.” Are these details necessary? Is the information useful? Tower’s dispatch is loaded with such trivia. Tower also preserves the exact manner in which Kenny makes his phone calls—he speaks with a “feeble, antique voice”—as well as the way he takes brownies from a plate.
When Kenny comes over to get a brownie, he drops a tissue over the stack, lifts the tissue, turns it over, and then peers warily at his bounty, like he’s picked up a dog turd.
Is one ever really wary of a dog turd? No matter, there are other people at the headquarters, like the baby who resembles Treat Williams, and a nine-year-old girl—the “only real red-American grotesque,” Tower avers—who’s “already conspicuously wearing a bra and makeup.” Tower lets none of these people speak for themselves. They are there solely for him to examine and describe.
Tower prefers lurking. He takes in every scene, committing to memory the most laughable details—the ugly suit, some guy’s stupid I Ching necklace, the racist joke. He waits to catch people at their worst and so sees little else. At a public library where early voting takes place, Tower checks if any fraud is transpiring and then makes time to ridicule a few more people, capturing new creatures for his menagerie. A woman—“probably toothless,” Tower says, “though I can’t tell for sure”—catches his eye and he unspools over 200 words about how she treats her child. She “could pass for either sixteen or thirty-five,” Tower writes, a number he might have nailed down with a simple question. For whom she’ll vote is anyone’s guess. Tower, apparently, can’t glean such knowledge from her clothing or gather it from eavesdropping. What did this woman do to earn such casual cruelty? What did any of these people do? Aren’t they owed their power of speech, the dignity to say something on their behalf?
Tower is like a butterfly collector, fascinated by tiny variations among the species and content to enumerate them. Naturally, he’s well-versed in types. “Almost none of my fellow telecanvassers,” he writes, “fits an established stereotype of a Bush supporter.” He speaks as one who knows. Surveying a victory party, Tower declares, “All sorts of people are here,” and proceeds then to catalog the teeming masses according to shirt styles (stiff oxfords versus polos) and all the other telling fashion choices. He spies a woman in a tight dress “whose body looks twenty years old but who has the face of an exhumed crow.” Then there are those Tower refers to collectively as “hourly-wage-earning types in jeans and T-shirts.” Oh, the humanity. While Tower people-watches, a woman calls his name. They knocked on doors together. Tower just pretends he’s busy, though, talking on the phone.
In 2009, Tower published Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of stories. It was a book I had decided to steer clear of, my opinion of his nonfiction being what it is, until I happened across an interview in which Tower said some of his fiction grew out of the articles he had written over the years, because he had felt, paging through his old notebooks, that prime material had been left out in editing. The week he spent working at the carnival, for instance, had produced 20,000 words of notes, but the finished article ran at little more than 5,000 words when it appeared in the Washington Post Magazine. Speaking to the Wag’s Revue, Tower explained:
I had all of this extra stuff, all of these sorts of cutting room floor goodies, that I had really wanted to put to better use. So the carnie fiction story was basically just a way to use those things that were very dear to me as nonfiction leavings.
Anybody who has done even a little reporting can surely recognize this feeling. A writer on an assignment is single-minded and purposeful, a machine for hunting and gathering leads, details, quotes, and then sorting through the inevitable overabundance. All the writer’s energy, and much of his time, are dedicated to the project. Everything he does and everything he reads serves the article. Despite all this industriousness, the writer gets sidetracked, maybe by a person who, while of zero use to the article, nonetheless has a great story or just some way of speaking, an odd turn of phrase one hadn’t heard before. Most of these distractions get lost in the shuffle of work, jotted down on a piece of scrap and then forgotten. What’s useful gets used up, like rocket fuel, and the rest just falls away, gone, out of memory. So it was then with utter sympathy that I picked up Tower’s book. I had my doubts, sure. I’d seen excerpts and read a few long quotes in reviews, enough to notice the resemblance between the fiction and the reporting, but still, I was ready to discover and, moreover, be pleased that those articles, however weak, had been occasions for much better works of the imagination, more finely built and more honest.
Reviewers had sung hymns for Tower and his book. And judges for the Story Prize, a $20,000 award for which Tower was a finalist, compared his work to that of Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, and, of all people, Anton Chekhov. The New Yorker included Tower in its pantheon of 20 writers under the age of 40 whom, as the editors said, “we believe are, or will be, key to their generation.” Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Edmund White declared every story in the collection “polished and distinctive.” Tower, he said, “has invented a world of rough men and strong women.” The men are “older, battered, no longer successful…half-defeated he-men, bumbling and only partly tamed.” Michiko Kakutani pronounced Everything Ravaged an “arresting debut” and Tower a “writer of uncommon talent,” possessing Sam Shepard’s “radar for the violent, surreal convolutions of American society,” Frederick Barthelme’s ear for dialogue, and David Foster Wallace’s eye for “the often hilarious absurdities of contemporary life.” Tower, she went on, “uses his reportorial talent for description to conjure the glum, shopworn world” his characters inhabit.
As the good notices piled up, the New York Observer said praise for Tower’s book was “unanimous,” which was no exaggeration. Aside from some Amazon reviewers who weren’t bowled over by Tower’s wizardly way with the language—his use of “wand,” for instance, as a verb meaning, basically, to wave, or “stuccoed,” as in “a truck grille stuccoed over with crisp insects”—everyone agreed: Tower was great. The only quibble the paid critics had with the stories was to mention, in passing, that their plots were, at times, well, a bit obvious. “Plotwise,” wrote Kakutani, “some of these stories are predictable.” What sounded like a serious flaw, however, was just a polite demurral, the sort reviewers raise and then sweep aside as ultimately meaningless, a way to register a complaint and demonstrate their generosity. Kakutani continued:
But no matter: we eagerly devour these tales not for their story lines but for Mr. Tower’s masterly conjuring of his people’s daily existence, his understanding of their emotional dilemmas, his controlled but dazzling language and his effortless ability to turn snapshots of misfits and malcontents into a panoramic cavalcade of American life.
It was hard, however, to overlook the condescension that crept into reviews of Everything Ravaged. Critics loved the stories, but those characters just weren’t their kind of people. One can see inklings in Kakutani’s “snapshots of misfits and malcontents.” Think here of the delicate dance admirers of Diane Arbus must execute, treating her portraits of freaks—to use Arbus’s term—not just as art, but as work best enjoyed separately from the subjects themselves, the real people captured on film. Thus, the artist’s interest in freaks couldn’t possibly be exploitative, and any well-cultured appreciation wasn’t at all prurient. “Imputations of ‘voyeurism’ are absurd,” wrote New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl. “Voyeurs must feel safe,” he explained, “and Arbus’s pictures are like the gaping barrels of loaded guns.” It’s his metaphor that’s absurd. Looking at photos isn’t dangerous. In fact, looking at Arbus’s is a good deal safer (and more respectable) than paying a quarter to gawk at the curiosities on view at Hubert’s Museum, a freak show Arbus frequented in Times Square. The declaration of art washes away any unpleasant ethical questions. Nobody’s staring at people, after all; they’re studying art. It’s a fine line, admittedly, but none can walk it better than the inveterate gallery-goer.
Similarly, Tower’s art lies, according to Kakutani, in making pretty pictures out of unappealing characters. His people may be misfits, the thinking goes, but his conjuring powers transform mere snapshots into that panoramic cavalcade. Others described Tower’s characters as “down on their luck” or “luckless” and “on the periphery,” with Tower standing by as their brave witness, the one who can tell us of their sad-sack lives. Deborah Eisenberg, reviewing the collection for the New York Review of Books, said:
We find men and women who struggle to maintain themselves but slip through classes—downward; people whose lives and fates are opaque and bewildering to them though the general outlines of these lives and fates could be discerned by a stranger on the street.
One begins to notice a pattern in the reviews: the stark division between Tower the artist, a man whose achievements are to be heralded, and his pitiable characters, figures, according to Eisenberg, who possess no insights into their lives.
It was the National’s Peter C. Baker, though, who reached a new nadir in critical condescension, with his reading of “The Brown Coast.” Bob, the story’s main character, has lost his job and inheritance. His father is recently deceased and, if that’s not piling on enough pathos, Bob has also grown estranged from his wife. He comes to the beach, to stay at his uncle’s house, and one day, on a whim, begins collecting creatures from the ocean. Bob fills a tank with beautiful fish. A neighbor presents him with a sea slug—“it looked,” Tower writes, “like the turd of someone who’d been eating rubies”—and, overnight, the slug kills his beloved fish. The slug, it turns out, is highly poisonous. Bob considers the shambles of his life and the mess in his tank, and feels “a kind of kinship with the slug.” Of course he does. If he were an animal in the ocean, he muses, “he’d probably have been family to this sea cucumber, built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near.” Baker declared this metaphor “eye-rollingly obvious,” which it is, but then added that he, personally, was “sure it is precisely the conclusion Bob would reach were he telling the story after a few drinks.” This is quite an insight. Not even Kakutani had the nerve to blame Tower’s characters for those predictable plots.
“Tower’s achievement,” Baker continued, “is not the pitch-perfect recreation of a lame, obvious metaphor, but the way he conveys how much that lame, obvious metaphor means to Bob.” Of course! Bad writing isn’t the fault of the author, it’s just that Bob loves him some obvious metaphors. The lamer the better, Bob always says. Never mind that Bob isn’t telling this story and hasn’t had a few drinks and that his metaphor bears a strong family resemblance to Tower’s show-stopping analogies. The language is at once too clever and too spelled out. In addition, such woe-is-me sentimentalism appears punctually in Tower’s work, always bursting out of nowhere and for no reason except that it’s near the end of a story and high time for a grand gesture.
What separates Tower from his benighted subjects, people like Bob, is social class. In a breathless profile of the author that ran in the New York Times, Eric Konigsberg identified a strong current running through the stories “of working-class aggression among characters in culturally nonspecific American exurbs.” Konigsberg, who was hired, in 2008, to write about the lifestyles of the rich, wanted to understand Tower’s “curiosity and affection for a less privileged group.” Tower offered, in Konigsberg’s words, that his interest “owe[d] something to the complexities of growing up in a refined but less-than-wealthy household—a family of teachers who drove beat-up old cars, as he put it.” Tower is too humble. His father is a tenured professor of economics at Duke University, where he has taught since 1974. Tower’s mother teaches high-school Latin, for a few years at his alma mater, the Carolina Friends School, a private school where tuition in 2010 cost $15,220. Tower also tells Konigsberg he’s named after a dean of students at Phillips Exeter Academy who, family legend has it, expelled the author’s grandfather for drinking—or maybe it was smoking. Family legend here turns unfortunately vague. “[T]he only thing fancier than having gone to boarding school,” Konigsberg explained, “is having an ancestor two or more generations before you who went to boarding school.”
Tower, though, wants it known that his upbringing wasn’t fancy. “We lived on the fringe of the New South,” he says. “It wasn’t the kind of suburban upbringing where the people around us were doctors and lawyers.” Years ago, when Bill O’Reilly boasted of his working-class bonafides, he said he knew, growing up, that his family was less than wealthy, because when they went out to eat—which was, the broadcaster emphasized, a rare occurrence, a real treat—“We didn’t waste money on appetizers.” O’Reilly’s father worked as an accountant for an oil company. The O’Reilly’s weren’t ever hurting. Tower, with his beat-up cars and his life on the fringes, betrays similar worries about his authenticity. As perhaps should be no surprise. After all, we like to believe our artists arise from hardscrabble beginnings, and the publishing industry has been too happy to devise profile-ready personae to satisfy our yearning for gritty creative types. But so how then, to return to Konigsberg’s question, does Tower understand his misfits and malcontents, this less privileged group? And what are the limitations of an author who likes best to look?
Tower’s magazine article “Breaking Down the Show” and his related short story “On the Show” suggest not only that his empathic limitations are great, but that his writing, whether fact or fiction, suffers for them. “Breaking Down the Show” describes, through Tower’s eyes, his week-long adventure in the carnie life. Written in the fashion of an impressionistic journal, the article is less about Tower’s fellow carnies than it is the author’s personal experience coping with the work—his feeling tired, his hands hurting. The work does, to be fair, sound grueling, slightly better-paying than prison labor but with less regard for safety. Tower’s first word, tellingly, is “I.” Another 292 words are either “me,” “my,” or “I” again. “I am nervous today,” he writes, “because when the ride closes down at midnight, we have to take it apart, load it on a truck and take it across the state.” Secondarily, the article describes, in lavish, step-by-step detail, the literal nuts and bolts of how to dismantle a carnival ride. Joyce maintained that Ulysses could, in the event Dublin were destroyed, serve as a blueprint for its reconstruction, brick by brick. “Breaking Down the Show” could, in a pinch, be our guide to getting fairs up and running again, should they ever fall into disrepair. Tower’s story based on these experiences first appeared in Harper’s and was revised for his collection. The story describes a week-long foray into the carnie life as experienced by one Jeff Park, a man taking some time off from college who moves in with his mother and stepdad, gets in a fight with his stepdad, and then leaves, eventually joining up with the carnival.
Tower, like his fictional surrogate Jeff, worked with a motley band of men on the Pirate, a ride where a ship swings back and forth, ratcheting higher with each pass. Similarities between the article and the story are many, great, and small, from minor characters like the fat boy with a broken leg to the 15-year-old girl who loves riding the Pirate and sucking on green fluorescent candy. There’s the carnie who runs the Zipper and does, in the words of the article, “a good sideline collecting change and cigarettes that rain down from the pockets of riders.” Readers of the story, on the other hand, meet Gary, who busily darts back and forth underneath his ride, the Zipper, “collecting the pocket change and cigarettes that rain down from the cars.” In the article, a man asks Tower if he wants to see a magic trick. When Tower says sure, the man “takes the cigarette from his lips and flicks a long caterpillar of ash onto [the author’s] shirt.” “Presto chango,” he says. “You’re an ashtray.” Jeff has the same trick pulled on him, with that same credulity-testing caterpillar of ash and the same punch line, except “chango” becomes, in the realm of fiction, “change-o.”
Art isn’t imitating life here. It’s following life, slavishly, unable or unwilling to make substantial improvements on the original. During Tower’s tenure on the show, a blind woman wants to ride the Pirate, but asks if it goes upside-down. Tower assures her it doesn’t and guides her to her seat. “With each step,” he writes, “her foot hovers in the air, searching for treacherous changes in the ground beneath her.” Jeff, too, has a blind fare. “With each step,” Tower again writes, “her foot hovers in the air, searching for treacheries in the ground beneath her.” What modifications Tower does make in transforming reported facts into his fiction seem extraneous at best. In the article, Tower worries the blind woman will panic. “She shuts her eyes tight,” he writes, “and leans back on her seat. She has a wide, easy smile, and her head nods in rhythm with the boat’s dizzying swing.” The words indicate without leading the reader or forcing a meaning. They let the woman be. In his story, however, Tower can’t leave this moment alone. “The blind woman smiles,” he writes, “as though she’s just recalled the answer to a question that had been worrying her for a long time.” As though. It’s as though Tower is presenting his calling card. He adds, “Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.” This is all wrong. The ride doesn’t draw joy out of people. Riding it may make them feel joyful, but if the Pirate removed joy from people, if it were truly like a derrick pumping crude oil from the earth, then the ride would leave them without joy. They would be joyless.
Facts are, to the fiction writer, a form of tyranny. In Tower’s work, the facts dictate a structure for his story, trapping it, and leaving his imagination little to do except color inside the lines set down by his reporting. The fiction writer is, in effect, handcuffed by the journalist. The fiction writer also has picked up the journalist’s lazy habits. In “On the Show,” Tower writes, “The lizard’s movement catches the eye of Henry Lemons, seven years old, who reaches for it....” In the next sentence, he introduces another boy just as summarily: “‘What’d you get?’ asks Randy Cloatch, age ten, who stands beside him.” This isn’t literature, with those ages dutifully inserted after each proper name. It’s a slog, rendered in AP style. Tower continues with a flurry of facts:
Jim Lemons, Henry’s father, has come to the fair on a blind date with Sheila Cloatch, Randy’s mother. Jim Lemons is the manager of a market research firm in Norton Beach, whose city limits lie two miles down the road. Sheila’s sister, Destiny Cloatch, works in the call center, and she arranged the date.
Got all that? Well, none of it matters. Not the market research firm, not the call center, not the driving distance to Norton Beach, and not Destiny, who is never again mentioned. What’s important—and what Tower awkwardly sets in motion—is the one solid piece of fiction in this story. Randy, the fat kid with the broken leg, and Henry get into an argument. Henry calls Randy a name and then runs off. Alone, afraid, Henry is lured into a port-a-john by a man who takes advantage of him, probably raping him, although Tower, for once, goes descriptively mute. The mystery of who committed this crime occupies the remainder of the story. From scene to scene, the narrator floats amiably and unbothered, casting suspicion on one or another character, even Jeff, briefly. With this device—for it is, plainly, a device—Tower propels his story forward.
But since the plot hits many of the same points—the same magic trick, and many of the same bits of dialogue—it’s as if the crime never happened. Characters say what their factual ancestors said, when there was no crime applying pressure to the scenes, warping everything, as crime surely would. When, for example, the time comes to dismantle the Pirate, a coworker tells Tower:
I don’t mean no disrespect, but you ain’t been through nothing like this…We’ll get you through tear-down and setup. I’ll do the high climbing, you’ll just be toting steel. I’ll look out for you.
In the story, a coworker tells Jeff:
I don’t mean no disrespect, but you don’t know what to look out for. I’ll look out for you. I’ll take care of the high-steel shit, for the next stop or two, anyway, and you help me out when you can.
It’s callous—or, at the very least, uninspired—not to imagine the men would speak differently given such a dramatically different occasion. Tower, though, appears content to stick them with their old lines. In both article and story, the men banter about what state in the union is the best place to face a capital charge. The answer, apparently, is Delaware, because there inmates get to choose how they want to die. What seems in the article like idle chatter reads in the story like apathy, the author’s.
What links these moments, of course, is Tower, soaking in the scene, noting its particulars, while being unable to get into a character. Maybe the facts as he knows them discourage his attempts to leap imaginatively into another’s sensibility. Maybe his training as a journalist makes him suspicious of any such leap. Or maybe his social class and the gulf that lies between him and his characters prove to be the greater obstacles. Whatever the case, Tower’s habit of looking without knowing undermines his fiction. One can get by in a magazine piece without revealing insights into how people are and what they think, but in a story—in a collection of stories—where some attention to consciousness is expected, if not vital, that absence will be glaring. Such thinness, such want for something deeper, anything at all, becomes apparent when Jim Lemons can’t find his son and, for twenty minutes, searches the carnival, until at last he spots him on the midway, watching a barker hype a super-absorbent chamois:
Henry doesn’t say much about what happened to him in the privy, but he says enough. Jim isn’t sure about the story. In his heart, he believes Henry is a dishonest boy, that his beauty has made him as vindictive and conniving as a movie star. Little fistfuls of coins go missing from Jim’s change jar when Henry comes over. On their last visit, Henry claimed a rattlesnake wagged its tail at him through the sink drain and he begged to go back to his mother’s. He wouldn’t give up the lie all weekend, even when Jim spanked him for it. Jim would suspect the boy of lying now, of deliberately trying to ruin his date. But Henry is missing his underwear and one of his shoes, which gives the story a bad ring of truth.
That this train of thought is unlikely is beside the point, for it is also, more importantly, inhuman. Remember, these are the thoughts, supposedly, of a father who had lost his 7-year-old son, a boy who has just told him that some man, he doesn’t know who, hurt him back there. In that moment, in the present tense, would a father really think, in his heart, that his boy can sometimes be a bit dishonest? Would he, while his son is standing before him, without his underwear and missing a shoe, enumerate all the times before that he has fibbed? Would he equate a few missing coins or some fantastic account of seeing a snake, the kind of tale kids are forever weaving, with sexual abuse? It’s as if the father were observing himself with his child. He’s not merely cold, he’s abstracted, removed. The writing feels distant, too, where it should be close, right there alongside the father and right alongside the son, inseparable from them both.
Tower’s stories don’t all lean so heavily on previously reported facts, but they each suffer, at crucial moments, from a lack of human feeling. When the stories most need a character expressing something difficult, Tower just creates another chilly narrator, an aloof observer who registers minutiae but cannot feel. Here, from “Down Through the Valley,” is a man remembering his ex-wife:
Often, the first thing I saw when I came home from work was Jane standing by the stove with her hair full of knots and an old T-shirt sagging close to the cooktop. I yelled at her about it, but that didn’t help. Her nightgown went up in flames two times, and we had to stop, drop, and roll her on the kitchen floor.
The joke at the end—trying to milk knowing laughs from memories of those old public service announcements—seems off, and not just for the moment, snapping the tone as it does, but off too for this character. It’s cruel and to no effect, mean and offhand like Tower the journalist. Here, similarly, from “Door in Your Eye,” a father describes his daughter: “Her face was still a little bit pretty, but she’d turned into one of these girls who carries a big load under her belt.” That sounds like a guy in a bar, sizing up his prospects before last call. In the title story, a mock-historical account of a Viking raiding party that proves less novel than its set-up might suggest, the warriors speak and think like all Tower’s men. His misfits from the fringes of the New South are thus united with their supposed forebears, those who lived in a distant time and knew rampant Nordic slaughter:
[A]fter Pila and me had our little twins, and we put a family together, I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.
The National’s reviewer pointed to these sentences as evidence that Tower’s work is evolving, maturing, with even his rudderless characters dreaming of something better, as the author turns his attention to life’s big puzzles, questions like “What happens when, having decided on something we want, we get it (or at least something like it)?” But is this passage remarkable? If one stripped away the details and the rhetorical flourishes, what’s left except the threadbare notion that love is sure rough, that, as Nazareth sings, “Love hurts”? Juliet Lapidos, a critic at Slate, described this passage as “melancholy,” and reflected on its profundities: “Hearth and home, wife and children are simply not as durable as oars and steel.” So true, Viking intellectual. Might we wonder, though, about the value of such clichés? Style shouldn’t be just some clever mask, there to conceal an otherwise ho-hum expression.
Here, by point of comparison, is Tower describing a lizard in “On the Show”:
A Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank’s enamel face into a crescent of deep rust. Against the lizard’s belly, the rust’s soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard’s hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.
What’s exact in this passage, what’s precisely seen and noted, are those things Tower always strives to get right. See the propane tank, he instructs. Appreciate its various parts. Now observe the lizard and the rust and that delicate change of color. Here, at last, is where Tower is most comfortable as a writer: seeing a thing, the more incidental the better, and then writing it down, the more elaborately the better. It’s pretty, yes, but it doesn’t matter, for the tank and the lizard play no roles in this story. They are, finally, just things. And yet here is where Tower pays his attention most lovingly, a moment when his writing can seem almost warm. For here, he has a still life to study, a tableau, call it, with lizard and propane tank. It’s as though, in his heart, Tower could like nothing better.