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If you ask me, there’s nothing funnier than a man seeing all that he’s created—built, grown, accrued, whatever—brought to ruin by the simple, ruthless, infuriating existence of his hapless neighbors. Such is the fate of Bob Munroe, the tragic hero in Wells Towers’s short story, “The Brown Coast,” from our Spring 2002 issue.
Bob wakes up on his face in his uncle Randall’s shack along the muddy beaches in Florida, where he’s been granted quarter while he works things out with his wife, on the condition that he fix the place up. Walking the beach one day, he finds a wondrous tide pool tucked at the reaches of a jetty. At low tide, it’s teeming with exotic sea creatures, which Bob—destitute and in need of beautiful things—collects and deposits in an aquarium in Randall’s shack.
So many scenes, as when Bob ferries his first treasured fish—“big and blue” with “fins tapered into brilliant yellow filaments”—to his aquarium, are frantic, goofy, and deeply hopeless:
It jerked and bounced across the rock, and Bob felt a shot of panic ricochet through his belly. He pulled his shirt off and grabbed it up with that. Then he sprinted up the bank, with the swaddled fish buckling and twisting against his chest. It was a violent and vital sensation, and Bob wondered for a moment if it was anything like this when a woman had a baby inside her. Bob ran across Derrick’s yard. Claire was in a bikini on the concrete porch. She waved to him and he yelled hey but didn’t stop. He ran with his flip-flops in his hand, and the oyster shells on the road hurt his feet.
Tower writes with a serious eye for the tragicomic. This scene hinges on his gifts in establishing a periphery; Claire and Derrick, Bob’s neighbors, circle the perimeter of his sadness like sharks. Later, as his separation becomes more devastating, Bob begins to sleep near his aquarium every night, as someone cold and lonely might a fireplace. It’s all he has left. Except, of course, for his new neighbors, who begin making the trips to the tide pool with him in search of better fish.
And so Tower exploits the pendulum of narrative—back to the tide pool, forth to the house, back and forth, back and forth. It’s structurally soothing in a bedtime-story sort of way, and it lends a gut-punch comedy to the imminent moments of pure despair.
As for that despair, I won’t spoil it, except to remind you that neighbors are vessels for the intrinsic supervillainy of the universe; whenever you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, and are programmed to seize it. Allowing one of them a drunken slumber on your floor may seem like the decent thing to do, but it’s not, especially when said neighbor drops a venomous sea cucumber in your excruciatingly curated aquarium, imperiling all you’ve left to love to noxious demise. So to speak.
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Daniel Johnson works at The Paris Review.
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