Look Out

Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction, by Bill Henderson. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. Hardcover, $22.00

A FEW YEARS ago, the literary publisher and writer Bill Henderson underwent an existential crisis that found him examining his marriage, his religious views and his general dissatisfaction with things as they were. He did the sensible thing: he turned angst on its head by taking on an oddball, life-transforming project for no reason--namely, the construction of a modest yet sturdy wooden tower on a hill overlooking the coast of Maine.

Tower is, at its most modest level, a book about that project, a sort of Thoreauvian do-it-yourself manual that recounts failures of design and execution as well as Henderson's eventual success. "If you are thinking of constructing your own tower," he writes, helpfully, "I suggest that you don't become overly analytical--. Every real tower is impractical." (Among the "real towers" that Henderson calls on as evidence are those built or occupied by similarly possessed men of the likes of Carl Jung, Robinson Jeffers, James Joyce and William Butler Yeats.)

Impracticality is, Henderson adds, no reason at all not to build a tower of one's own, the local zoning restrictions be damned. But Tower is about much more than mere edifice-building. It is also a highly charged spiritual memoir, in the course of which Henderson rekindles faith, not only in God but also in himself and his ever-tolerant loved ones. At every turn Henderson faces fears, all of them entirely reasonable: whether he'll pitch off his roof in a high wind onto the jagged rocks below, whether said wind will send his tower spinning skyward, whether he is up to the difficult task he has set for himself.

He is, as we learn, and that's inspiration enough for the rest of us to start putting up castles, windmills, spires and other artful constructions for no good reason at all.