When I read Tower’s story “Raw Water” in BASS 2010, I was shocked that such a terrible story would’ve made not only McSweeneys (it was commissioned, in fact, for the same issue as Jim Shepard’s “The Netherlands Lives With Water“) but BASS. A lot of cohorts mentioned his story collection was quite good, and I felt bad about the rather scathing comments I made. I’m not the one with two Pushcarts, after all. So I picked up a copy at my local Fiercely Independent Bookstore. I’m glad I did – I loved a couple of stories, and very much liked several more.
However… there’s one thing I find really interesting; I’m not sure if it’s in a good way or a bad way, I’m still mulling it over. The stories as they appear in this book are not necessarily the stories that appeared in the original publications. There’s a pretty famous example to readers of McSweeney’s: “Retreat” was originally published in issue 23, and then he rewrote it and published it in issue 30. It’s the rewrite that appears here (and that earned a Pushcart). I’ve read them both. The rewrite is definitely more complex. In the original, the characters were pretty much the Good Brother vs the Bad Brother. It’s a lot more intriguing when both brothers have good and bad qualities. And the neighbor improved as well. The Whistler Writers Group Blog quotes his preface from the rewrite in issue 30:
One thing that was screwing me up was all the long-form nonfiction work I’d been doing. Nonfiction – even literary nonfiction – calls for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. in metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connection’, which is when you take two pieces of metal and a rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections. You go out and witness things, and if you’ve got at least a few compelling scenes, you can fuse them together with the cold rivets of journalistic writing – the transition, the fraudulent hardware of arc and angle. Nine times out of ten, the reader won’t feel gypped, never mind that there’s no real heart thumping in the thorax of your tin man.
Fiction can’t be approached in such calculated fashion; at least I can’t approach it that way and feel good about myself in the morning. But I’d been given a firm deadline for the story, so I started cold-connecting a bunch of spare parts I had laying around.
I thought that was kind of cool, actually, that a writer would not be satisfied with “Oh, it’s published in McSweeney’s, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.” I think there’s a lesson there for me, in fact.
So I went on and read through the collection, then started googling around for information on the other stories, as I usually do: sometimes they appear online (either in online editions of the journals that published them, or the author posts them on his website, or makes an audio recording), or the author does an interesting interview, or I just realize something I didn’t see in the story. I found a review, by Aaron Riccio of ThatSoundsCool, of “Door In Your Eye” which was published in A Public Space – and I didn’t recognize the story. At least the first half. Suddenly the narrator is not Charlotte’s father, but her lover, he’s a young guy, and he’s just moved to town. It then goes back to the plot line I’d read in the collection, visiting the neighbor who’s reputed to be a whore but is actually a drug dealer, but the narrator is so different, and his relationship with Charlotte and the neighbor is so different, it’s a completely different story. I thought, son of a bitch, he did it again. And sure enough, right there in the publication notes; “a number have been extensively revised.” So I went hunting, which is why it’s taken me over two weeks to work on this collection.
There’s a review on a personal blog called TheCraftProject of “Executors of Important Energies” from McSweeney’s. This was one of my favorite stories in the book, and what’s described in the review bears little similarity to the story I read (there’s no father with dementia, no stepmother mentioned). Again, assuming the blog review matches the original, the story in the collection worked for me because of those elements.
But I’m wondering, just what is it with Wells Tower? Why is he sending out stories that need to be rewritten? And why are top literary magazines taking them? Doesn’t it make all of them look a little silly? Or are they just different versions, not necessarily improvements? Or is it admirable, to keep working on something that’s already been accepted – or just to see how many permutations of a story you can come up with? Do other authors do this? I’ve read a few collections, and I’ve never noticed this happening before – but it’s possible I just haven’t noticed. I really can’t decide if it’s admirable or foolish. But, as I said before, I’m not the one with two Pushcarts (Addendum: Tower addresses this question in a new March 2012 interview at Fiction Writers Review).
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (originally in Fence): This title story is so far and away the best in the book IMHO (including the other three stories I liked a lot) it’s like a different book entirely. If you have even the slightest notion of reading this story (go ahead, buy the book), stop reading here; read it unspoiled, because the metamorphosis, the synthesis of all kinds of disparate things, is one of the magical things about it. Know what the blood eagle is? I’ll give you a hint: it has to do with lungs. The blood part is just a side effect. Know how to tell when a wound pierces the GI tract? Feed the stabbee onions, and smell the wound. Yeah, there’s lots of blood and guts. They’re Vikings, after all, and plundering and pillaging is what they do. There’s this humor overlay since the voice is completely contemporary – they’re just like us, these Vikings. Wells Tower made me love a Viking marauder. And there’s serious thought at work. I don’t know when it was written, but the story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2002 issue of Fence, which pretty much makes it about 9/11. But it could be about Vietnam and domino theories or about Iraq and WMD. Some people just like to go to war. And some just have to because it’s what’s expected. And if you don’t like to, if you just have to (because someone’s sending dragons/evil/dominos and blights/blasphemy/WMD and you gotta get ’em to stop), once you’ve made a living of pillaging and looting and ravaging and burning, you look at your family: “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 you still 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 towards your home.” No wonder this story won a Pushcart. I read it two days ago and I’m still panting.
(Note: The art above is a still from Chris Roth’s animated short video trailer [1:33] of this story; it’s too good to miss.)
Leopard (originally from The New Yorker and available online): “Your hatred of your stepfather is all-consuming and unceasing, but this is only because your world is still small, and your stepfather assumes an outsize significance in the story of your life. That your stepfather seems to dislike you with an energy and relentlessness to match your own seems proof that your mother is married to a petty and dangerous child.” Yeah. That’s one amazing clip. Every time I read a second-person story, I wonder why it’s such a horrible thing. Maybe the bad ones, the mediocre ones, the anything-less-than-spectacular ones, get weeded out so only the extraordinary ones get published. This time, I thought I’d finally found a story where second-person doesn’t work. Except it does, especially at the very end. Maybe if I had the automatic antipathy towards second-person so many seem to have, I’d object more, but I loved this story. And I can’t imagine it being rewritten in first or third person without ruining the last paragraph. Or at least changing the impact of the sudden imperative. It’s basically the story of an eleven-year-old boy who stays home “sick” because he’s tired of being teased about his cold sore, only to find dealing with stepdad is worse. The aura of threat permeates every page. It’s quite something. And it’s available online, as in an interview with the author which covers not only this story (“I’m sure that story would have been tarred and feathered in graduate workshops for being too sentimental,” he says) but the whole collection.
Executors of Important Energies (from McSweeney’s) features a father, son, and stepmother dealing with Dad’s dementia via a chess hustler and veal scallopini. “At first, I thought his failure to remember where I was living, or that I’d finished school, was just a deepening of the aggressive indifference with which he’d always treated me…” Again, I was very caught up in this while reading. The principles have a fascinating history, and the outsider, with his own dysfunctions, highlights their dysfunction. I’m interested that in each story so far, there’s an outsider – the vet and wife, the mountain neighbor, and now the chess hustler – and I wonder if that’s something important and common that I’ve been missing, an outsider to illuminate the primary conflict, to allow one of the primary characters to ally with someone else or in this case to joust over who gets to ally with him. A variation of a stranger comes to town? Or a segment of the road buddy? This is something I need to think about.
Retreat (twice from McSweeney’s): “…I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother’s wrath. Stephen’s furies are marvels of ecstatic hatred, somehow pornographic, the equally transfixing inverse of watching people in the love act….But six deep ones, and our knotty history unkinks itself into a sad and simple thing. I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we’ve spent lost to each other.” This is the Pushcart-winning story of brotherly jousting. Matthew, the older, is a financial speculator who’s down to his last mountain. He and kid brother Stephen have been competitors forever. Matthew arranges for another round. I very much enjoyed this story, especially the final scene with the moose.
“Brown Coast” (originally published in The Paris Review) is set in a dilapidated Florida beach house with no beach. Former carpenter Bob is down on his luck. He built stairs incorrectly while hungover, then he rear-ended a lawyer, and his wife discovered the footprint of the woman from traffic school that he was banging on the windshield of their car. He stays with Uncle Randall for a while until he’s shooed off to the beach house with a list of repairs to be made. He discovers a bunch of sea life in a tidal pool (an element in common with “Raw Water”) and becomes casual friends with Derrick, neighbor-vet, and wife Claire. An aquarium, a sea cucumber (oh, I saw one of those on Iron Chef several years ago, ugly little things), and a passing catamaran full of beautiful people come into play. “…Bob felt a kind of kinship with the slug. Had he been born a sea creature, he doubted God would have robed him in blue and yellow fins.… No, 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.” Yep, I’ve had days like that. I found this a very good read. It epitomizes what I keep reading about this collection in reviews: the loser who keeps trying to redeem himself by doing just one thing right.
Down Through the Valley (published in The Paris Review: “You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up.” Another jousting match, with actual physical jousting taken out on another bully. While it said a lot about the characters – new-age Barry’s fawning passive aggressive nature especially – I found it hard to get through. The writing’s great, the language is perfect – look at that quite, “you’d do better not to haul up.” How many ways can you say that? But this one connotes a certain person, a certain place, an outlook on life. But it made me too angry. I think that means it was wildly successful.
Door In Your Eye: Albert goes to live with daughter Charlotte, who shows him photographs of a man murdered right outside her apartment, to scare him into staying home while she’s out. “If anything, I was afraid of my daughter, a grown woman who when she finds a dead man, the first thing she does is take a hundred photographs.” He notices a neighbor has a lot of visitors, men banging on the drainspout, and Charlotte assures him she’s a whore. He’s fascinated, spends a lot of time watching from his porch. Then he sees one of them take out a lighter and hold the flame to the door. Nothing happens, but he figures he should warn the woman, so he writes a note on an envelope to leave at her door. But once he gets there – it’s up a flight of steps, and he has a bum knee – he figures he might as well meet her. Turns out she’s not a whore, she’s a drug dealer. They share a joint and a tomato, and he sees Charlotte come home and waves to her from the window. It was a good enough read, but it kinda went by me, didn’t leave much behind. Except the thing about taking a hundred photos of a dead man, that was pretty good.
Wild America (available online at Vice) also went by me. It reminded me of a lot of other stories I’ve read, like “How To Leave Hialeah” for the way teenage girls talk about sex (I don’t think I was a very good teenager; the closest we came to talking about sex was the lyrics to “You’re Just Too Good To Be True” applied to a penis, and when we got to “I wanna hold you so much” we just broke out laughing because who could imagine such a ridiculous thing). And “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” for the way a teen longing to be sophisticated and worldly runs into trouble. We don’t get to the trouble here, but it’s clearly the direction things are headed when Dad’s Buick shows up, and those of us who are not teenagers breathe a sigh of relief. Teenagers probably curse, because they’re still envisioning high romance and eternal love, whereas those of us who’ve learned a thing or two (or maybe have lost something along the way) are envisioning rape, mayhem, murder, and whatever comes next. The two girls, cousins, one perfect and the other not, are perfectly drawn from the non-perfect one’s point of view – the envy, the increasing distance as they become more and more different, the anger. Boys are viewed pretty accurately, too, IIRC (cute boys, and the other kind, the kind you settle for because they’re all that’s available to you). It was a good enough read, held my attention. But the story didn’t really go anywhere all that interesting for me. YMMV.
“On The Show” (from Harper’s) is either a metaphor for life – you get sucked into things, creeps take advantage of innocence, and the worst guy of all is the one with the most power) – or an attempt to dissuade anyone from ever going to a neighborhood carnival again. It starts off with two kids, one of whom gets molested by an unknown perp in a porta-potty while his dad necks with his blind date on the Ferris Wheel, then pretty much leaves him except for occasional references and follows Jeff Park, who just ran away from bumming around home to join the circus when his new stepfather got tired of his sitting around doing nothing. The plot arc traces twenty-four hours at the carnival and ends with Jeff discovering some things – and people – look good at the time but that glow fades with time. Eh. It seemed like disconnected incidents to me. But I think maybe I’m getting a little worn from reading about so much inhumanity, so many emotionally callous people, so many losers fumbling their way into deeper loss. From comments I’ve seen on various blogs, it was published in Harper’s along with a non-fiction article by Tower on carnivals, and that version did not not include the two little kids. A completely irrelevant side note: When I went to google this story, I discovered that if you enter “On The Show” and stop, Google will helpfully supply a suggestion: “On the show pretty little liars who is a…” I am not sure if I am more surprised that there is a show called “Pretty Little Liars” (it’s apparently some kind of teen mystery based on young adult fiction by Sara Shepard; an updated Nancy Drew, maybe?) or that it is the only tv show that pops up in that phrase, or if I am more curious just “who is a” is. Back to the story: The more I think about this, the less I don’t like it and the more I can see how it works. I think the original story did not include the opening with the little boys. It’s a strange arc, two arcs, really, and maybe that’s where I’m having trouble, but I can also see where each arc works. I’m just not completely sure they go together. But I suppose I should take his word for it. And maybe I’m just tired of circus/carny stories.
Another word about arcs, for my own benefit (this is my blog, after all, and I’m reading to try to understand how plots work). A lot of the reviews I’ve read talk about this collection as stories about someone, a loser, trying to redeem himself by getting something right for a change, and failing. See, as a plot device, that’s tricky. Succeeding is easy, because that (or the aftemath) is the end of the story. Failing and giving up, that works too, because it’s an end point. But here the end points are less clear. So I look at “Leopard”, a story I liked very much. The end point is that imperative. Danger lurks. Something terrible is about to happen and rescue the boy from the scolding. Almost demon ex machina – not god, but the devil will burst from the trees. Somehow this feels very complete to me, even though we know nothing is going to happen. But the boy is changed, he’s learned a new mantra – keep still. We – at least I – figure there’s going to be a newspaper story in a few years about him shooting his stepdad or gunning down his classmates or something like that. He morphs into a predator in that moment. But is that just because I’m looking for it? Because I liked the story? Because I want it to work?
The carny story is different. Dual arcs, one added after the original publication, I think. Boy gets molested, and we eventually find out who the molester is. But the other arc is the college kid who joins the circus and finds out they’re gonna abuse him even worse than he thought his stepdad (who expected him to wax the car since he was living off them after dropping out of school) did. And he sees rescue in the phosphorescent green of a girl’s mouth, after she’s eaten a particular kind of candy. But she lets him down, and it’s ok because the glow is gone anyway. End arc 2. I’m left with, so what. The kid is still a carny, the little kid was still abused and no one’s been arrested, and it all just feels very incomplete to me, like there’s another section that in some way links these things and brings them together. But, again, is it because I didn’t like the story, I’m not trying hard enough to find the completion?