Review: "The Landlord" by Wells Tower

New Yorker fiction | September 13, 2010 issue
Approximate word count:  5800
POV: First-person

Here is a story with a bit of zeitgeist, told in the form of vignettes narrated by a North Carolina landlord named Coates who is dealing with the spatters of the popped housing bubble.  Coates is losing his properties left and right and is headed for financial trouble. We enter the action by meeting a model tenant who lives in one of his slummier places, and the story properly ends with that tenant too, who turns out to be not such a model after all.  In between those bookends the action bounces between the narrator's two handymen and his smart-ass artist daughter, who has recently moved back in with him from L.A.

And that is enough for a short story, if properly done.

There's not a lot that's necessary to say about this story.  It's of the old-fashioned, Cheeveresque/Yatesian kind. The straightforward style wavers somewhere between formally flat and colloquial, with the choicest morsels bobbing along in the dialogue.  The author is not trying to impress, but he's also got a good ear.

Coates sends his two handymen -- one an angry old misanthrope, the other a hulking fresh-faced youngster -- to Idaho to fix up the Idaho cottage his parents left him, and where he'd planned to retire but now must sell to relieve his mounting debts.  The two men do not get along on the trip, and their telephone calls relay the distant action to Coates, providing humor.

It's his daughter Rhoda who is the heart of the story.  She says she's moved back to work on a new "body" of paintings, that are kind of about...
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...
It's that voice, Rhoda's voice, that gives the story energy and spunk.  She is the charismatic character, the oddball who sticks out, who provides a counterbalance to the narrator's ho-hum business-like even-keeledness.  Vivid contrast is what she is.  She goes around taking pictures of a huge limb that has fallen on his deck, seeing in it a symbol of the fallen state of America (or something, it doesn't matter -- put more Rhodas in stories, please).  Yet what she's actually doing is creating paintings of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which she explains is a kind of transmogrified sexual symbol that her dad inflicted on her as a kid by taking her to see the movie.  The scenes between her and her father crackle on the page.  Rhoda is alive and thinking in a way that the others, including the narrator, aren't.

I won't give away the ending, but I found it satisfying.

There's nothing new about this story, but it does the old very well -- it is charming and almost neat and symmetrical while managing to appeare loose and ragged around the edges.  John Cheever and Richard Yates would like it, I think.


Pete said...

I liked it too. I was impressed with how deftly it managed that many characters in so little space. My instinct (or training, maybe) would have me reluctant to attempt so many. You can imagine the workshop, surely, in which the author is urged to cut the female tenant, or focus more on the daughter at the expense of Idaho.

msf said...

glad you've started doing these again. i've let that pile of nyers stack up, so it's nice to have a reason to remind myself that i actually look forward to reading them...

kclou said...

Tangentially, I recommend the collection, if you haven't read it already. I received it as a review copy, and it took me a while to remember I'd read him in Harper's (and really liked him). The guy is good.

dunkeys said...

Great post, G. I actually read the NYer now (I'm grown up!) and look forward to more, hopefully.

Also tangentially, I've only read three or four of Towers's stories. This one wasn't my fave, but he had an odd and fairly wonderful piece in McSweeney's earlier this year. (I read it on their little app thing, Small Chair, which is a pretty fantastic deal. I feel like I'm shilling for Dave Eggers. I just like some of the fiction they publish, though. Including the Towers story.)

Backtracking a week, the first paragraph of the previous issue's story (Freudenberger?) was jaw-dropping.

Tim said...

This was the first story I've read by Wells Tower. What impressed me was the attention to detail, and use of humor. Compared to what the New Yorker has been running lately, "The Landlord" stood out.