It sounds like ropey sci fi – and came from a McSweeney’s Quarterly themed around ‘an investigation of the world to come’ – but this story by Wells Tower is the best kind of down-to-earth unpleasantness. A married couple – Rodney and Cora Booth – travel out to a holiday caravan on the edge of a “do-it-yourself ocean”, a manmade sea that has turned red thanks to a bunch of one-celled organisms that thrive in the salt. It’s supposedly harmless, but weird stuff starts happening to them and Rodney begins regressing to a primal state.
Even in the new hours of the day, the water was hot and alarmingly solid, like paddling through Crisco. It seared his pores and mucous parts, but his body had a thrilling buoyancy in the thick water. A single kick of the legs sent him gliding like a hockey puck.
Needless to say, things get very creepy, though you never quite know if the lustful, elemental transformation overtaking Rodney is caused by the water or something else about this place on the edge of things. Tower is an arch-stylist and this is one of my favourites of his simply because it’s so hard to find, compared to his extraordinary collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. We’re well overdue a follow up, so hopefully he’s completing the final edits on the periphery of some remote, hostile expanse right now.
Published in McSweeney’s 32, 2009
I’m not going to lie and pretend that the premise for this isn’t a bit of a cliché – the father/son bonding experience of taking a trip together. Except this is at Burning Man and is in turns very funny and very weird and surprising and entertaining and written in Tower’s cool, laconic prose which gained him such attention for his wonderful first collection of stories Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. It’s also a story about being embarrassed by one’s parents, and describes his singular, peculiar childhood with great tenderness.
First published in GQ, February 2013, and available to read online here
When is Wells Tower’s next book coming out? Is what those of us who love his collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, have been asking for ten years. No pressure, Wells. But get on with it. His work is wildly funny, stylistically wide-ranging, and full of painful truths. I’m picking this story over other possibles in the book because of its opening description of a baby pigeon, mauled and dropped by a cat onto a pillowcase: “The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of some day becoming a prostitute.”
From the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, FSG/Granta, 2009. Most of the story is at online here but it seems to cut off about a page and a half from the end…