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The Master Builder

TOWER Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction By Bill Henderson; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 218 pp., $22

May 28, 2000|THOMAS CURWEN

Falling has serious implications. You either break your neck or, if you believe in such things, much worse: You find yourself alone in the wilderness, outside the providence of God. Bill Henderson's belief in both--and his willingness to risk either--make "Tower," his account of constructing such an eponymous structure nearly 20 feet tall on the coast of Maine, a strange and fascinating book.

Twenty feet may not seem tall, but Henderson wastes no time framing his task in mythic proportions. Size, he states, dismissing from the start the priapic one-liners, doesn't matter. "It's a tall imagination that counts," and effortlessly he veers into territory typically associated with Thoreau, Wendell Berry and even Thomas Merton. Tower-building in Henderson's calloused hands is less an exercise of hammer and nails than of soul repair. Paralysis, faithlessness and perdition lurk in the shadows of his story: that all such darknesses could be written about with such vividness and wit.

At 54, Henderson had a soul that needed repair. Publisher and founder of Pushcart Press, author of a novel and a memoir, he had just endured 27 rejections before finally selling his second memoir, "Her Father," the story of his life written for his much-loved little girl whom he was about to lose to the predictable agitation of adolescence.

Taking his advance, he headed to the Down East coast with his beagle Opie and purchased a piece of property on top of a rocky and forested hill, overlooking a patch of ocean and a stretch of blueberry fields, a place where he decided for no reason to erect his tower, two stories and a deck, by hand, no power tools. "Towers have been built for many reasons. . . . Mine, conceived in emptiness when my memoir was finished, was founded on the edge of despair and framed in pure frenzy, a dark rage in bright sunlight."

It was a risk, not just for the punishing nor'easters that blew through the area and flattened buildings in one snowfall but for Henderson's own acrophobia, the "topple-down" variety of vertigo that impels sufferers to throw themselves forward into the air, not an especially strong suit for tower builders. Yet surprisingly few tower builders are any more prepared for their obsession than Henderson was, and "Tower" becomes a rumination, complete with photographs and schematics, of towers and tower builders, such as Robinson Jeffers, William Butler Yeats, Carl Jung, Gustave Eiffel, a score of nameless Italians (think Pisa; think Torre degli Asinelli in Bologna, Torre del Mangia in Siena and the 100 towers of Pavia) and anyone else who built toward the sky with neither "practical, religious or propagandistic purposes" in mind.

Along the way, he discovers how much he has in common with these carpenters, stonemasons and welders, knowledge that is both consoling and unnerving. Simon Rodia, for instance, builder of the famous Watts Towers, began his scrap-metal and shard filigrees in 1921 as his third marriage failed, a point that Henderson, sleeping one night on his couch, imagining his own marriage about to collapse under the weight of his maniacal fixations, realizes might have serious implications for himself and Annie, his wife of 17 years.


But ultimately it is another type of tower that interests Henderson the most. As a boy growing up in Philadelphia, he was raised beneath the steeple of the Presbyterian church. His father insisted on a life of devotion with daily doses of Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. It was a childhood of fire and brimstone that he happily sloughed off in his 20s, living a sybaritic life in New York in the 1970s, a course that eventually led him to question both the state of his health and the sanctity of his soul.

As winter ends, he embraces the rigors of work and the virtue of hauling 1,000 pounds of Ready-Mix through the snowy woods and lugging water bucket by bucket to the site. The music of his mind becomes the music of his saw. "I framed out the balcony with two pressure-treated horizontal 2' x 4' joists that were in turn supported by 2' x 4' braces on a 45-degree angle back to the first floor, nailed into the studs and sheathing on either side of the main door's rough opening. . . ."

Eventually the tower becomes Henderson's own church. In one moment, he remembers the simplicity of his boyhood, when God existed outside in the night air, a presence he could feel when he reached outside his bedroom window and touched the sky. Building his tower, he overcomes his fear of heights by learning the crab scuttle, and he confronts his fear of dying and leaving this world by rediscovering the meaning of grace, the unexpected benediction of God.

Less an escape from the inevitability of time, his tower is a place where he learns to be grateful for what time has given him: ". . . to have been granted more than fifty years to do just this. I was no longer a writer or publisher or any other definable entity. I was free from words and bowed down by simple thanks."

Falling has serious implications, but only if you know what you risk. All the more sweet, then, the effort to fly.

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