Wells Tower “The Landlord”
The New Yorker Fiction: 20 Under 40
September 13, 2010 issue

Like many of the stories in this series, “The Landlord” is not a comfortable read. Its characters are struggling. Even the characters who are lucky.

It’s easy to spot them, in the context of this story: the lucky and the not-so lucky. The not-so lucky one sits across the room from the lucky one. “A man like you should get his shirts tailored…”

The distinctions matter. Tailored or off-the-rack. Landlord or tenant.

But the distinctions are also not as distinct as one might think. Even the lucky ones can have their not-so lucky spells.

The lucky one is actually wearing a tailored shirt, but it was bought two years ago, when he “owned fifty-three properties. I own nineteen now.”

Maybe he’s not not-so lucky, but he’s certainly less-lucky. There’s a big difference between owning nineteen properties and owning fifty-three.

“At first, the pain of financial exposure was an articulate anxiety” for our less-lucky-than-he-was-but-still-luckier-than-most character.

Now the anxiety is only a “numb heat”, so that his scalp throbs at the root of each hair, so that his ribs give off a queasy warmth that kills his appetite.

Throbbing scalps and queasy tummies: the discomfort is palpable. One character remarks: “I sincerely wish a good life for Todd, the way you sincerely wish the ulcers on a growling stray would heal.”

Leon Neyfakh’s discussion with Wells Tower in “The New York Observer” reveals a fascinating bit that changes the way you read this story, however:

“Being a human being isn’t just all misery and desapir. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy.”

There are such opportunities in “The Landlord”, but you do have to look for them.

Have you read Wells Tower? Do you plan to?