Friday, October 01, 2010

Short-a-Day: Wells Towers's "The Landlord"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 13, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 19.

Like the protagonist, landlord Coates Pruitt, this story is on its way to bankruptcy. Like most published authors, Towers is able to write coherently enough, but only a sentence by sentence basis: there's no clear train of thought linking the units of this story together. It begins on a comic note, describing Pruitt and his tenants: "Armando lives in one of the worst properties I own, an apartment complex so rife with mold and vermin that, when I sent a man to clean a vacant unit there, he developed an eye infection that didn't clear up for a month." It then switches to a serious note, dealing with a pending road trip for two of his laborers, Todd and Jason: "Todd is in his sixties, and he is a venomous human being. he is angry that I don't feel the same bile toward his co-workers or my tenants that he does. He is angry that, owing to the frailty of his liver and esophagus, he has only a couple of dozen good drunks left in him, and he must spend them wisely." The story then flips, yet again, to Coates's interactions with his daughter, Rhoda, who, being an artist, is able to make the case for this story: "'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.'" 

Is there something redeemable about these people, about this story? Perhaps, but you can't tell from this: the foul-mouthed Todd rubs Jason the wrong way, so Jason beats him up and leaves him on the side of the road; Rhoda starts drawing pictures of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and explains to her father that she associates that moment with the indirect incest she experienced while reading his porn; Armando runs off with all the fixings and furnishings from the place he's been renting. If any one of these moments were more developed, they would work--that's how interesting the characters are on the page; instead, they all come across as if they're being presented to us on a platter, all artifice and look-what-I-can-say writing, no meaning.

If anything, the myriad pieces contradict one another: Coates is fairly sanguine about the robbery, about his increasing debts, the misbehavior of his contractors--and yet we get a paragraph-long interjection that begins "Colleagues, I miss them," and describes the suicides and imprisonments of people he knew, including his own cheer at reading about how "David Butler, a partner at the firm where I used to practice law, took three million dollars from clients' escrow deposits and disappeared." Which is the life he craves? Does he, in fact, crave anything? It's hard to tell, given the lack of drive in the narrative--hell, there's even a lack of the depression that might explain everything else. In summary: Towers is a landlord with tenants, but no properties with which to back them up.

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