Can I, can I put in something like, "this is 'American Music,' take one."
I've been following the career of Wells Tower ever since a friend pointed me towards his anthologized story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," which is a sad/funny sensitive story that just happens to be about a mid-level member of a Viking raiding party; he also writes nonfiction in places like Harper's — a dispatch from the National Conservative Student Conference is a favorite. In the stories of his I've read — like "On the Show," also in Harper's — he basically renders oddness normal, sorta like Jim Shepard, using approachable colloquial language to imagine the sense of loneliness that must surely link us to carnies, Vikings, et cetera.
This story, though, works through a character much more frequently associated with social isolation and personal unfulfillment — an eleven-year-old boy.
It's told in the second-person imperative, sort of like Lorrie Moore, and it makes more immediate some stuff that'd seem otherwise banal, like the acute shame and panic of a blemish (something that always seems immediate and definitive when it's happening to you), which is how the story begins. (It also makes more immediate some stuff that seems a bit generic, like getting aroused by I Dream of Jeannie.)
There are, though, some nicely shaded bits, especially in the war between loser-ish son and not-your-typical-domineering stepfather — also a subject of "On the Show" — like for instance when the narrator insists, "He will spend days gathering evidence to prove that those are your teeth marks on a pen you said you hadn't chewed." It's also a sign of skill, I think, that Tower leaves it to us to think inside the stepfather's head, and figure out that perhaps, especially given his altercation with the boy's father, he resents his wife's kid as an interloper in his marriage.
That's a dynamic similar to "On the Show," and so is the marginal presence of sexual crime — a device Tower uses, I think, to give us a sense of unease, and to raise the stakes of this small-scale personal drama. It's a way — perhaps an obviously device-y way — for Tower to convince us that no, this world isn't quite like ours, it's more extreme and dangerous and the damage is potentially more lasting.
The kid is eleven — "the age that our essences begin revealing themselves, irremediably, to us and to the world." He seems like a fairly normal if somewhat awkward kid — Tower's voice has that familiar sense to it — but between the intimations of his compulsive lying and the outsider nature of his upbringing, you get the sense that this kid could, yes, grow up to be a fundamentally warped and antisocial and possibly damaged, damaging person.
Hence, the leopard, wandering around just beyond the edges of the visible world. "A roving metaphor stalks the land," the L's Nicolas Rapold once wrote about some or other movie that had a bear on the loose, and again it's possible you can see Tower's effects for what they are, but still, I like the leopard, wandering around, reminding us, in this story of a boy rushing full-speed towards adolescence and violent confrontation with his stepfather, that anything might happen, and soon.