This collection of short stories by Wells Tower is mostly about men trying to give their lives a reboot by reconnecting with family, or by proving to themselves that there is still simplicity and beauty in life. Most of the male characters are divorced, and the women they encounter serve as, perhaps not as antagonists, but certainly as catalyst characters who help derail what may be the main character’s final trip down the track to redemption. But this is too simple a treatment of the stories, and the characters are much more complex than that.
The string of male-focused tales are broken up by “Leopard” and “Wild America” which have as their main characters an eleven year-old boy and two teenage girls, respectively. Tower is equally able to inhabit the minds of these characters, and this ability, I believe, is because he writes about human nature and not the particulars of the characters’ gender or age. Control is an important theme in the collection: who has it, who’s lost it, who has it but doesn’t want it: the boy in “Leopard” who butts heads with his controlling step-father and envisions an encounter with an escaped leopard as an escape of his own; in “Wild America,” the contrasting metamorphoses of two cousins into their adult forms show us why the world will forever be divided into the haves and have-nots. Finally, there is the sweet story of an eighty year-old man in the process of losing his freedom who decides it is time for one more adventure to the mysterious apartment across the street that is a reputed whorehouse.
This book is loaded with gems. The stories are heavy with them, and you can dig into any page and scope them up by the handful. A pianist learning Bach’s Two-Part Inventions will be amazed that every verse contains coupled measures that have more creativity and beauty than what can be found in most full compositions. So it is here. The mark of a good writer is the ability to describe common things in unique ways, like a female face. At some point, every writer will have to describe how a female character looks. This is how Wells Tower does it in “Executors of Important Energies”:
She had the kind of hungry, large-eyed prettiness around which Japanese cartoonists have established whole religions of lechery.
Hungry. Prettiness. Religion. Lechery. The reader should know exactly, very specifically, how this woman looks and the desire she creates in men, in that ideal of anime porn enthusiasts who want to watch innocence defiled in hardcore ways, but within the unreal context of a cartoon, which makes it all ok.
In “Down Through the Valley” he writes:
She was molten in my bed, but she also suffered depressions that were very dear to her.
How perfectly to describe someone who not-so-secretly enjoys her funk and her drama.
“Wild America” contains my favorite description:
Jacy was alone, woozy and heart-swollen in the downtown, wandering wet streets that gleamed as you would have them gleam in the sweet summer film of your life.
That’s some sweet writing.
The best thing I can say about this book is that early on I started keeping a pencil with me as I read it so I could note passages I like. The book is heavily marked.