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'Tower': carpentry as a spiritual quest


"Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction," by Bill Henderson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 215 pages. $22.

In February of 1995, Pushcart Prize series editor Bill Henderson was, in his own words, "emptied out." He'd spent a decade writing a memoir that had been rejected 27 times before it was bought by a kindhearted editor in Boston. His daughter, almost 11, no longer needed her dad as she once had. His Oldsmobile station wagon was held together with duct tape. He couldn't afford to pay his heating bills. His marriage was weary. And his God had gone missing.

Bill Henderson was on the brink of cataclysmic despair. He needed something, but he hadn't a clue about what that something was.

And then, for no good reason he could think of, Henderson alighted on the solution. He would build himself a tower. Not a castle in the sands, and not a treehouse. But a tower on a hill overlooking the sea. A tower in the heart of Down East Maine, where the winds kick up like hurricanes and the snow buries houses whole.

It's a fool's errand, certainly, but Henderson, a man of books, a guy "terrified and dizzied" by heights, gets it done. "Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction" tells the story of this feat on the hills with seductive charm, honesty, occasional dollops of humor and sly infiltrations of architectural history.

In places, "Tower" operates as a literary how-to, replete with lists of building materials and to-the-penny costs, little cautions about marking boards with pencils, not pens. It's as if Henderson believes we all have towers in us, too, and that all we need is a little gumption and some know-how, which he, in a spirit of droll generosity, supplies.

"The 2" x 4" x 8' kiln-dried fir stud is the basic item of wood tower construction," he tells us. "The studs are dubbed 2 x 4's, but that's their untrimmed measurement. Actually, they are 1-1/2" x 3-1/2" and a bit more than eight feet long. Why they aren't tagged as such I don't know. Tradition from their untrimmed days, I guess. Plus, 1- 1/2" x 3-1/2" takes longer to say."

But of course the book is far more than a mere how-to, for streaming through these pages and binding the narrative is Henderson's quest to make sense of a world that seems to threaten at every turn. Friends are diagnosed with cancer. His marriage continues to falter. Even the church where he goes to find solace is riddled with politics and infidelity.

It's an unsafe world and it puts Henderson in a panic, and only the tools in his hands and the air in his lungs give him a safety net as he works his way through insufferable torments and anxieties. "But I monkeyed up the ladder and nailed the next nail and monkeyed down and sawed and nailed, and the contant motion, not booze, became the balm that drove me from fear to fear," he writes.

Finally, by Tower's end, God and Grace are in sight. Not just for Henderson, but for the rest of us, too -- or at least those who choose to accompany Henderson on his everlasting journey.

Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," the 1998 National Book Award Finalist. Her new memoir, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," won a 2000 National Endowment for the Arts grant and will be published this September.

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