Thursday, September 23, 2010

Towering Words

Wells Tower is Raymond Carver minus the specifically lower-class settings and the minimalist language. It’s fun to think about what Carver’s editor Gordon Lish would have done if he’d gotten his hands on Tower’s work. Would he have proposed the same kind radical streamlining that has generated such controversy in the recent considerations of Carver’s oeuvre? Would he have tried to limit the palette, turning Wells into the equivalent of the 12-tone composer he made Carver into? Would he have eliminated the din and fashioned the prose into something spare and metallic to reflect the theme of dispossession? On the basis of the recently published New Yorker story, “The Landlord,” Wells deals with dispossession as Carver did, only in a different arena and with a broader scale, showing that it’s not merely the province of those who occupy modest digs in the Northwest. Significantly, the story is about someone who owns something, rather than a Carver character who can’t pay the rent. But the ownership itself is jeopardized by the kind of desperate and unruly tenants you might find in a Carver tale (both Armando Colon, the tenant, and Todd Toole, narrator Coates Pruitt’s foul mouthed maintenance man, fit the bill neatly). Sociologically, Tower’s characters fit beautifully into the era of sub-prime mortgages, which helped some members of the middle class leverage themselves into a state of economic oblivion. Pruitt’s 31-year-old daughter Rhoda is a sometime artist who has come back to live with him. She had an accident “while getting the hang of a radial-arm saw” and “the shock of the injury caused some of her hair to fall out.” Here is the manifesto for her latest artistic project: “To some extent, your problems with the real estate stuff, and my parallel humiliation at having to move in with you. But in a broader sense it’s about our collective lack of integrity and total fucking childishness in the wake of the financial crisis, i.e., the national epidemic of petulance and bratty outrage over the fact that poor people don’t get to buy castles on credit anymore, that execs don’t get G.D.P.-size bonuses, that not just any housewife with a real-estate license gets to be a millionaire, and that you can’t stick a chopstick in a dog turd and sell it at Gagosian for the price of a yacht. ‘A Pestilence of Petulance’ is what I’m tempted to call it but probably shouldn’t.” Even Lish might have been tempted not to edit that.

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