"The Landlord"
by Wells Tower
Originally published in the September 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Despite all of the hype, I never got into Wells Tower’s debut collection of short stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I tried a story or two from it but didn’t finish them. To be fair, I never really gave it much of a chance, attempting to read the stories here and there when other things were going on. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like them; they just weren’t interesting to me at the time. Because I never felt I gave him a chance, I was looking forward to his offering for the “20 Under 40” (which is, incidentally, almost over; just Chris Adrian and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie left).

Well, I felt for “The Landlord” much as I felt for whatever I tasted from the short story collection. It was written well enough, I was never bored; I just never really cared, and it was easy to put down (which I did several times this morning, starting the story at 5 a.m. and finishing it sometime around 1 p.m.).

This story centers on a landlord during the recent financial slowdown / meltdown. There are a few different sets of characters he is dealing with — a tenant who has gone to his church to help him pay his back rent, a couple of employees going to Idaho to do some fixer-upper job, a single woman tenant he is attracted to, his artistic daughter who is covering up the fact that she’s ashamed that, at age 31, she is moving back in with her father. She wants to do an art piece that is “[t]o some extent, your problems with the real-estate stuff, and my parallel humiliation at having to move in with you.” It turns out that her project turns into variations on the creature from the Black Lagoon.

Watching these story lines develop was never a chore, the writing was fine, and I was interested in all of the characters — just not very.

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By |2016-06-19T00:47:33-04:00September 6th, 2010|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Wells Tower|Tags: |6 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett September 6, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    New post up, and I’ve already put down some of my thoughts. I ended up indifferent about this one, but perhaps someone can point out some of its qualities better than I.

  2. Ken September 12, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    I think you were kind. I found the tone of this condescending and the “social satire” rather stale. I agree that it’s well-written and readable but I thought it was empty.

  3. Trevor Berrett September 13, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I probably was kind because this is still so much better than last week’s offering. Only enough to get me to indifferent, though, so you’re probably right, Ken, and had I read this in another time I might have been even less impressed.

  4. Adam Trujillo September 28, 2010 at 10:00 am

    I liked this story.

    I can see how some of the characters are not very interesting (more on that shortly) but I found the protagonist quite interesting. He’s a wise soul, but that wisdom has come at very a high price. He’s given up on some parts of his life, but he sees hope in his tenants, in his employees, in his properties, and in his daughter. But his ability to see this hope is pretty amazing because they’re all severely flawed, and they all have long, hard roads ahead.

    I too found the characters interesting but not very interesting. But that’s intentional – or natural at least. First, they’re so nicely drawn that you feel like you know them already. Second, we don’t want extra information about them because they are the self-indulged brats that the Rhoda (the protagonist’s daughter) rants about.

    The protagonist has a parental attitude about these characters, even though they irritate him, and even though they are in fact driving him into poverty. At one point he says that he wishes his employee Todd well in the same way that one wishes the ulcers on a stray dog would heal.

    Tower isn’t trying to sell these characters as interesting or unique. They are spoiled creatures that don’t understand the situations they’re in and don’t have realistic strategies for coping even if they did.

    I also liked the splashes of black humor mixed with psychology. Rhoda’s story about the Black Lagoon is a great example. And Rhoda, who is also wise but much less tempered than her father, is given a fantastic rant that strikes at the core of the story:

    …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…

    Tower manages to portray these spoiled characters, and even spells out that they are petulant brats, but still relates that they are likable. They may not be redeemable, but they are not without their charms. I didn’t find this treatment condescending.

    There are some weak spots. Near the end, for example, the narrator’s pleading with his daughter and his attempts to get her to “put some wonder in your life” are sappy and out of character. But on the whole I’m quite impressed.

  5. KevinfromCanada November 2, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I found this story quite successful, perhaps not as much as Adam did. Seems to me that all the characters were square pegs stuck in a world of round holes (or vice versa), so I found their beligerant reaction to their inability to fit in an effective touch. I don’t think a short story has to be “complete” to be effective — rather, exploring just one aspect is enough for me.

    Having said that, I too am aware of the substantial praise that Tower’s collection received, but must admit that this story doesn’t have me rushing off to buy it.

    And you can put me on the disappointed side of the whole 20 under 40 project. They may well be a score of very good writers but these stories certainly aren’t providing evidence for that assessment.

  6. Trevor Berrett November 3, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Well, you’ve got a good one coming up with the Munro, Kevin :).

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