by Wells Tower; New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009, 256 pages, $24 hardcover, $14 softcover
Dr. Sederer is medical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health and adjunct professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York City.
This is a book about men—and boys—although there is one story that is not. Maybe only men will be interested in reading these marvelous, irresistible, though dismal tales of hapless, endearing losers.
After consuming several, I wondered how these men, one after another drawn by the author so thoroughly in so few words, could take it. How could they bear the defeats, the losses, the ignominy, the loneliness, and the sheer misery that has befallen them, in good part at their own making? How can we, the readers, bear their tortured tales?
Yet I found myself moving from story to story, like rappelling from one jagged rock face to another, motioned onward by the flight of Tower's imagination and masterful wordsmithing. His writing is lucid, salty, ironic, loving, and mocking—and at times downright weird. And the story lines are quite unpleasant, as our heroes go from bad to no better or worse, although an occasional resurrection took me by surprise.
We begin Tower's journey with "Brown Coast" —not blue or red, or even green. A down-and-outer meets some locals, and a life that was on a string becomes more frayed. Yet the hero makes a point of saving the creature that destroys what he has tried to rebuild. We go on to meet two squabbling brothers in "Retreat" —with the title suggesting what men do when they are being vanquished by the enemy. "Leopard" is brilliant and tight and opens a window into the seemingly incomprehensible mysteries of preadolescent boys. "Door in Your Eye" waters our evaporating hopes, but only sparingly so, for men who have given up. If you want drifters, grifters, and boys and men who hit every pothole on life's road, take a look at "On the Show."
The last story, the book's namesake, seems to come out of nowhere. We meet tribal Scandinavians from some indefinite past who are looking for a fight to rid them of their ennui, before anyone knew what that was. The pages of this story are barbaric with scenes that reveal just how cruel and foolhardy men can be, for no good reason. This story uses the phantasmagorical to remind us of the timelessness and absurdity of violence and war.
Want a trip down Losers' Lane? Want some striking writing? Want stories that hang together because men are such a reliable source of material? Well, then, go get ravaged and burned by Wells Tower.