Loss is a Many Splendored Thing
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“Roisterous Calliope”: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
“I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. 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 still you 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 toward your home.” — The narrator, a Viking, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”
Let’s say that there are two ways to read a work of fiction: to live a character’s experience as your own, or else, to view the character and his journey from the redoubt of your own identity, clear or unclear as it may be; that is, to fathom something deeper about the world, something that might otherwise be alien to your daily experience. Dressing up on Halloween, we do the former; watching the news from our dens, the latter. Call them the zombie versus the vampire attitudes toward a story: one always galumphing forward in pursuit of a live meal, the other, lurking in the confines of a shadowy castle, waiting for the arrival of fresh blood.
The characters, overwhelmingly male, who populate Wells Tower’s stories in the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are zombie-like in their appetites, careening forward on a haphazard path, always open to contingency, never ending up quite where they — or we — expect. Embodiments of a rollicking, if not often neat, zest for experience, most suggest personalities who read themselves into the shoes of the characters found in fiction, as they venture out beyond the safely delineated bounds of any prescribed identity. And many, it happens, are individuals who have lost something dear.
Jacey, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of “Wild America,” has lost to divorce her father as a comforting presence in her life, and stands to lose much more in an encounter with a much older dude whom she finds ensconced on a flat rock in the middle of a stream. She steps “with care across the algae-sueded rocks that [lead] out to the little island” where he is sunbathing. A day that begins innocently enough as a date with an awkward classmate named Leander diverts to an impromptu walk through the forest near Jacey’s suburban Charlotte home at the behest of her pleasant-on-the-eyes cousin, Maya. (Maya earlier informs Jacey that she has tired of her relationship with a picture-perfect boy her own age and now plans to embark anew with an assistant director at the Governor’s School for the Performing Arts, where Maya is a student).
The kids share a joint — Maya’s, of course — while looking down the hill toward the stream, where the dude has just made himself at home in the sun with radio and beer. When Maya begins to flaunt her allure by encouraging a flattered Leander to dance with her (she lowers him “in a competition-grade dip”), Jacey becomes enraged, calls Maya a slut, and storms down the hill toward her waiting corrupter. The dude, Stewart Quick (at least that’s what he calls himself), has suffered a loss of his own: an arm, ripped off in an industrial washing machine and reattached only after his mother browbeat the doctors in the ER to salvage what they had deemed unsalvageable. In her honor then, Quick’s damaged arm is covered in tattoos of his mother’s face. Innocence and its perhaps inevitable endangerment is a recurring theme in Tower’s story collection. This is an author who seems always ready to extend a little sympathy to the devil.
The language in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a delight, by turns uproariously comic and surprisingly deft, the dialogue mischievous, the trappings drawn mostly from what was once regarded the exclusive province of males (tensioners, pivot bolts, pulley grooves, scrollsaw work, Minwax sheets of bead-board wainscotting, carriage-welded class-four trailer hitches, moose-hunting, mountains in Maine). A middle-aged son reflects on the cavortings of his increasingly senile father one afternoon in Washington Square Park: “A love of strangers, a fearlessness with them, had always been one of my father’s gifts. A connoisseur of the chance encounter, he would have tried to speak the language of cockatoos if one touched down beside him.” A boy, at odds with his domineering stepfather, reflects on the land surrounding his parents’ home after finding a flyer for an exotic lost pet: “With the leopard out there, the woods seem famous now.” A recent arrival in Florida admires his new acquaintance’s wife as she emerges from the sea: “She stopped and braceleted a dark thigh with her fingers, easing her hand down the length of her leg, stripping the water off in silver peels.”
A young runaway who finds work at a carnival (“You stand there and they pay you for it,” he thinks) finds his emotions stirred in favor of a girl who delights in the ride he must watch over:
She’s perpetually sucking the phosphorescent candy they sell at the fair. Each time Jeff Park tugs her lap bar to be sure it’s locked down tight, he steals a glimpse of the pale green light glimmering behind her teeth, a light of both desolation and comfort, the light of a lone cottage window on an empty street. He thinks it’s there for him.
Tower’s stories offer a vision of an America exuberant and all-embracing, if, maybe for that very reason, destined to folly, and sometimes something darker. Folly which — dark or no — can prove its own end, and not an entirely unpleasurable one at that.
“Industry Is The Enemy of Melancholy”: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
“I rather like breathing. Still, I wonder if our obsession with longevity is entirely… healthy. ‘Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death,’ wrote William Hazlitt, ‘is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not; this gives us no concern — why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?’” — Christopher Buckley
And in that epigraph, perhaps, we have an explanation for conservative resistance to health care reform. But, no, that is not a fair judgment of the work of a writer who famously threw his hat in the ring for Barack Obama — at the cost of his slot on the masthead of the publication his father founded (The National Review, William F. Buckley, Jr.). And especially unfair in opening a review of an elegantly concise and revealing account of losing two parents in less than a year. If it isn’t Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis then it is not wholly alien in breadth and scope: where Mr. Eggers’ book documents youthful flight from tragic circumstance, Christopher Buckley provides a seasoned and unflinching confrontation with the inevitable, where what is offered is nothing less than a literary representation of the last days of modern conservatism’s “founder and primum mobile,” a great writer of our time — say what you will about his politics, it’s hard to deny William F. Buckley, Jr. that.
“I’m not sure how this book will turn out,” runs the introduction to Losing Mum and Pup, “I mostly write novels, and I’ve found, having written half a dozen, that if you’re lucky, the ending turns out a surprise and you wind up with something you hadn’t anticipated in the outline.” While noting that he is at heart a satirist, Buckley begins his treatment of a most personal (and many might think unfunny) subject by dwelling on the theme of orphanhood, a major artery in the thoroughfare of American Literature. Curious, as Buckley suggests, to be over fifty and still identify so strongly with a figure like Huckleberry Finn; no wonder that as bodies age most people do not find it easy to let go their attachment to figments of youth, an attachment that can well seem to signify life itself.
For it is only the great, the great will have you know, who can look back on a life lived and measure it in terms of their abiding works — and his father was such a great, Buckley avers in modest fashion, while not hesitating to depict the man in his failing hours (“Pup’s daily intake of pills would be enough to give Hunter Thompson pause”). “Once they’re both gone, your parents’ house instantly turns into a museum,” he writes, “Every trace of them you see, you imagine inside a glass display case, along with a plaque or caption. This red pen was used by William F. Buckley Jr. These sunglasses belonged to William F. Buckley Jr.”
Not solely a meditation on death, the manner in which flesh finally turns cold and immutable — so that viewing the body in its coffin Buckley is careful to touch only his father’s hair, which retains its living semblance — the memoir paints an adoring, if sometimes challenging, son’s portrait of his parents in life, a vision more powerful for the fact of their having departed this “vale of tears” (a favorite expression of WFB’s).
Buckley credits his mother’s ferocious wit as a chief spur to his own literary endeavors (“Her fluent mendacity, combined with adamantine confidence, made her truly indomitable… whatever talent I possess as a ‘humorist’ — dreadful word — I owe to her”), and records his father’s various tried and true expressions with brief entries as to their meaning (I wouldn’t worry about it: “WFB speak for ‘The conversation is over’”). In so far as he is willing to deny subscription to his father’s form of Catholicism (a belief which, likewise, Patricia Aldyen Austin Buckley, did not share), Buckley also renders a portrait of the man in his finest hours.
When the call from his wife came in early 2007 that his mother’s death was imminent, Buckley found himself in the state of Virginia at Washington and Lee University for a speaking engagement in his own honor (the novelist appreciates the praise of admirers since those closer to home were not always so generous; about his then most recent novel Boomsday, his father only emailed, “This one didn’t work for me. Sorry. xxB”). Of his car ride through stormy weather back to Stamford, Connecticut, Buckley observes, true to English major form: “Rain on the way to mother’s deathbed: Right, I thought, the objective correlative: the outward aspect mirroring the inner aspect.”
Mrs. Buckley’s memorial service, which her son was entrusted to arrange, was held in the Temple of Dendur at the MET, where Mrs. Buckley was a leading patron. Each program featured the eulogy written by his father, one that WFB “couldn’t bring himself to deliver a cappella in the shadow of the old Egyptian goddess.” The eulogy read, in part, “I offered to paint her fingernails, and she immediately extended her hand, using the other one on the telephone.” At the event, son depicts father thusly: “Poor Pup, poor desolate man — his face was flushed, livid, scarlet with grief.”
When, not very long after, his father’s time arrived (Buckley having spent months away from his own family to help attend to him), reactions varied. W. called to say, “He was quite a guy.” Gore Vidal, with whom the elder Buckley held a bitter public feud in decades past, labeled the deceased in print, with twisted passion, “a hysterical queen” and “a world-class American liar,” not failing to add “RIP WFB — in hell.” Far more numerous, though, were the plaudits.
Over the course of his final years, WFB took delight in Google Alerts of his name, often asking that his son read to him from each. Once news of the great man’s death at his desk, surrounded by “an eagle’s nest of printed matter — newspapers, magazines, books — CDs, tissue boxes, and sundry detritus,” escaped into the world, Christopher Buckley could not help but marvel: “Boy, how he’d have loved this, the mother of all WFB Google news alerts.”
Near the end of his memoir, Buckley writes:
How did it turn out, Pup? Were you right after all? Is there a heaven? Is Mum there with you? (Grumbling, almost certainly, about the “inedible food.”) And if there is a heaven and you are in it, are you thinking, Poor Christo — he’s not going to make it. And is Mum saying, Bill, you have got to speak to that absurd creature at the Gates and tell him he’s got to admit Christopher. It’s too ridiculous for words.
– Jeff Price is a freelance writer and editor