Writers write to be heard, to make a point or out of a need to make something pretty out of words; some do it out of a simple hunger for applause. The best of them write to make sense of the world and the human condition. Wells Tower writes like a man writing for his life.
He's a master of the moment in which bad-tempered, well-intentioned men start out in high hopes of bringing something better or different to their lives and, even when they're fairly forewarned, turn around and shoot themselves in the foot. Some of the elements in Tower's world are beautiful, some ugly, some just weird, and he rushes the reader into the middle of all this with the swift, edgy prose of a writer compelled by his material.
Down on his luck and on the way out of his marriage, Bob Munroe beds down in his uncle's summer cottage in The Brown Coast. Wading out into a tidal pool, ". . . he saw something moving in the blue deeps of the hole — a fish, four pounds at least, and gorgeous, nearly the same dark blue as the water, just sitting there, gently working its bright yellow fins."
When he spits into the water, the fish lunges hungrily and he understands that it is starving. "Then he hocked up a lush wad from the back of his throat and lowered it toward the water on a slow strand. The fish sat rapt and waiting."
He puts it in his uncle's aquarium, collecting more sea life to swim with it, taking grim pleasure in the project while job prospects dwindle and his marriage crumbles. Meanwhile the dysfunctional couple next door are collecting him. Of course it will end badly, but no matter how low he brings his protagonists in the course of drawing their lives, Tower usually leaves them at a complex but redemptive moment.
Warring brothers laugh as one of them bites into tainted meat at the end of Retreat, a gnarly story about sibling rivalry. A father-son relationship gone wrong looks less bleak when the failing old man and his angry son are thrown together in the back seat of a car as the driver of the rolling piece of junk hits a pothole.
Life isn't easy for any of Tower's characters, from the overweight mom with the hefty, abusive child in the first scene of On the Show, a riveting story built around a child molester who prowls the grounds at a carnival. Carney hands and hangers-on fret and strut through a montage of scenes in which everyone's a suspect and nobody can guess who's guilty, but the story isn't built like a murder mystery. It's built more like life, forever threatening to slip out of control and take the reader off to a dark place where she had no intention of going.
Although he draws women very well, in most of these stories they're waiting offstage, or they're cast as supporting players, like the brassy stepmother in Executor of Important Energies, who brought about that miserable father-son reunion. The only female lead is played by Jacey, the clever overweight girl in Wild America. Like so many of the stories, this one turns on rivalry, which with Tower's characters seems to translate as resentful envy. Jacey and her visiting cousin, a would-be dancer, take off with a skeezy older guy when pretty Maya starts flirting with the smart girl's clumsy "boyfriend."
Probably the best story in this first collection is the breathtaking Leopard, a second-person story that drops the reader inside the head of a 12-year-old who hates his chores, hates his life, hates his stepfather.
"Your mother's fingers graze your sternum, and this makes you uncomfortable. A spray of large and painful pimples has recently sprouted there. They throb with humiliated awareness when your mother touches them. This area of your body is a source of worry, in part because, years ago, a babysitter told you that in their teenage years all boys develop a soft spot in their chests, like a baby's fontanel, and that you could kill somebody by punching him . . ."
Get inside that kid's head, go where he takes you, and you'll understand just how good Wells Tower is, and if you think this terrific writer can't be funny, skip to the title story and reconsider. It's told from the point of view of one of the Viking horde swooping down on the monastery at Lindisfarne for the umpteenth time, and it's funny and gory and sad all at the same time, because clunky and terrible as they are, Tower's ravaging hordes are, at heart, people like us in all our vulnerability and confusion.
Like the artist in a sushi kitchen carving roses out of radishes and marigolds out of carrots, Tower knows how to turn the ordinary stuff of life into something amazing.
Kit Reed's recent novels include "Enclave" and "Thinner Than Thou."