A collection of darkly comic short works includes the stories of a man who is thrown out of his house when his wife discovers his infidelity in a bizarre way, teen cousins who share a woodland comeuppance, and a youth who flees to a carnival life after being bitten by his father.
The nine stories in the collection are the products of much careful observation, writing, and re-writing, and that shows in their craftsmanship. There are very few infelicities of style on display here. But what doesn't show, what's invisible to the naked eye, is the muse-touch that brought Wells Tower to our shelves. He's not a writer made, he's a writer born. How dare I assess a stranger's character? I dare because there are only a few times in life when the hairs on one's neck stand up and the palms of one's hands moisten when someone not right there *feels* like they are.
Tower is a star. He writes beautifully. He imagines fully the characters he presents to us. These are craftsmanly things, things I can teach someone to do. What I can't teach someone to do is to see so deeply into the reality of another's life. That makes Tower very unusual.
In every story in this collection, there is something unexpected. The last story, set in Viking times, is a complete departure from the present-day fringes-of-society settings of all the others...but only at first glance. The characters in Tower's fiction are all men looking for meaning in all the socially sanctioned places and not finding it. I can't think of a more evergreen plot off hand. But these men all have one thing in common that isn't superficial. They are all wounded from within by anger.
An angry Viking...yeah, so? The Viking in question, however, is wounded by the anger he feels at change, at the world daring to shift him into a new place. Like the other Tower men, modern men, he feels cut off from his source of meaning and connection. I don't think this is anachronistic, because I think that's been a human experience since scientific-Adam fathered the first huge batch of modern human males.
Why read about angry men, I hear the ladies murmur, we see 'em all the time...yes, I know, but ask yourself this: Why is anger so male an emotion? Why are men so ticked all the time? Turn to fiction for your answers. Betrayal of the trust a man reposes in others is a biiig one ("The Brown Coast", "Wild America", "On the Show"), or the inability of humans to cope with change ("Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned", "Door in Your Eye", "Executors of Important Energies")...in short, the same things that make women angry, right?
Not exactly. Tower's men, like the flesh-and-blood ones I know and love, are befuddled by the very fact of feelings. They aren't mad because you hurt their feelings, they're mad because you found them in the first place and THEN hurt them.
And they have no way to tell you this. So Tower had to do it for you. So he did. Go say your thank-yous at the cash register, buy his book, read it and apply your confusion to the real men in your life.
Thematically most of the stories deal with male angst, the daily frustrations of simply having to live life and get by. Two of the best stories, though, 'Leopard' and 'Wild America' are told from the perspective of young adolescents, the former a boy, the latter a girl. The frustrations here are even more poignant, tinged with the hope of youth.
The title story at the end is one no reader will forget. Fun and most definitely different from the other stories, its Viking narrator uses a hard-boiled street vernacular. Sounds tricksy, but it works, and thematically fits in: Vikings suffered from male angst too!
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not one of those books. This, despite, critics all over praising it as the second coming of Mark Twain mixed with the observant short story craft of Raymond Carver. Wells Towers book has garnered praise from the likes of Edmund White, Michael Chabon, and Michiko Kakutani, who placed in her top 10 of 2009. Surely, this must be a good read.
For one, it's quirky. In "The Brown Coast," for example, the protagonist is kicked out of his house after his wife discovers a footprint on the car's windshield that isn't hers. In "Retreat," the main character's brother is a failed music therapist. In the title story, Vikings set off to conquer the world because they're bored. This, along with other examples, shows that Tower is the type of writer who can describe things that are new ways at looking at the world around you--an almost paradigm shift through prose wording. Tower describes the voice of geese as "nails being pulled from old boards." True and yes I have never heard of that, but true. He describes a racist old man looking at black people as: "leering wonderment at the man's precocity, as though he w ere watching a squirrel wash a cracker." Indeed, Tower has an eye for humor and a giddiness of language.
But it's a book, so if you read one story after another, all the stories begin to sound similar and the humor is annoying and reused quirkiness. Read every story here, and you will read 9 times about men who divorced their wives or lost their wives, and are now looking for a new life, which is not always that great. That is, read these stories and read about manhood gone awry, but read these stories and quickly forget about them. None of these stick and the collection is on the whole a disappointment. Of note might be "Wild America," a story about rival cousins, and originally published in A Public Space, but one would just have to question if this story sounds too similar to Oates's "Where Have You Been? Where Are You Going?" Other than this, this collection is begging to be skipped.
Well Towers would be easily forgotten if he didn't have good publicist or publisher.
Overall, this was a really well-written collection with a lot of humor. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of Updike lately, but I found myself laughing out loud several times, most notably at "Door in Your Eye," where an old man waves to his daughter from a suspected prostitute's apartment.
Tower's characters are exactly what the back of the book says they are: They're misfits and failures, but they don't really hold illusions about their lives. As a result, we get to see these characters in all their failed glory. There are no heroes here, which I liked. Tower's characters are just your average people plodding along in their lives, but he spotlights them in such a way to make them interesting.
I was disappointed, however, with the title story, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." Maybe I just built up my hopes a little too much, looking for a great story about Vikings. I was, overall, underwhelmed by this story. I did, however, like that the Viking characters spoke and acted as if they were in the modern world, but they were living their Viking lives. For example:
So Djarf, whose wife was a sour, carp-mouthed thing and little argument for staying home, was agitating to hop back in the ship and go straighten things out in Northumbria. My buddy Gnut, who lived just over the stony moraine our wheat field backed up on, came down the hill one day and admitted that he, too, was giving it some thought. ... His wife had passed years ago, dead from bad milk, and now that she was gone, the part of Gnut that felt peaceful in a place that didn't move beneath him had sickened and died as well.
In other words, I liked that, just because he was writing characters that existed in a different historical time, Tower didn't feel the need to change his writing style and language to suit that change in history. He made the Vikings a little more real, in my opinion, than if he were to write in language that "seems more Viking," whatever that may be.
My rating: 9/10
By Wells Tower
2010, Picador, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
Review by Debra Louise Scott
Wells Tower has put forth a delightful collection of “guy stories” (except for one about a teen girl). Even though I’m of the other gender, I thoroughly enjoyed them and found sardonic echoes of my father, my ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend, my brother-in-law and more. Wells writes from the gut while consistently turning out masterful twists of language, image and simile.
“What I heard of his music was gloomy, the sound track you might crave in an idling car with a hose running from the tailpipe, but nothing you could hum.” Retreat
Each story sounds like it’s being relayed by a good friend who has just accepted a beer and propped his feet up on the coffee table. The stories flip from intriguing, to humorous, to disturbing, to tragic, but all feel real. Wells especially goes out of his way to challenge the way we automatically pigeon-hole people and think we know who they are with just a glance. By the time we get through the short 30 odd pages of story, we see the character with a depth that usually takes a few chapters of a novel to achieve.
The exception to this was the one with a girl as the protagonist. She had a more shallow aspect, almost as if Wells heard the story from his sister and was trying to set it down in print, without really understanding what makes her tick. However the basis of the story was real enough and I found echoes of my own teenage traumas lurking among the words.
The only real issue I had with the writing was his odd propensity to make the last paragraph somewhat of a non-sequitur. Sort of like the storyteller was on his second or third beer by now and starting to drift.
My two favorites were those that I didn't think at all depressing and definitely the funniest: Door In Your Eye, and Everthing Ravaged, Everything Burned
The best was the last "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned", set around a Viking losing the urge to go raiding due to domesticity, but told with contemporary language.
Tower creates realistic stories; there are no flights into fantasy, no surrealism. The plots often involve someone struggling to hold on to what little bit they have or to find something to do with themselves. Most often the main character is a man who has to start over after a marriage ending, financial loss or being kicked out by the parents. I was pulled into each new story immediately, though it did get a bit monotonous to have story after story about males wanting to find their place. There's one story told from the point of a teenage girl.
One other thing that I would have liked to have seen was a few stories that had more of an ending. I like a story that leaves the reader with multiple choices for what happened next, but Tower's endings aren't endings so much as an interruption in the middle of a conversation, like he meant to keep going but forgot what he wanted to say. I don't mean to dissuade anyone from reading this book because it's his first and it's pretty good.
"Not long after the affair had run its course, Bob and his wife were driving to town when Vicky looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman's footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own, and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home.”
Tower has an arresting style and an eye for character. He takes a sharp scalpel to a life and throws us a short glimpse, a Polaroid snapshot where there are more questions than answers. Mundane lives and everyday darkness’s, made interestingly ominous. There is a strong theme of familial rivalries and relationship break ups here from the sibling rivalry and middle aged fear in The Retreat to Down Through the Valley where our narrator views his ex-wives husband with jealously and dislike.
"I can't explain why I did these things, except to say that I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother's wrath.”
Some stories don't work: one has follows multiple people around a pivotal dark moment and loses focus and my interest. The other is a tale of Vikings and quite frankly Tower's humour and arresting style just fell flat to my English ears.
"He crossed the cockeyed patio. Tiny lizards scattered from his path. He followed the sound of waves to the end of the yard, through a stand of pine trees, limbless and spectral. He stepped from the pines onto a road paved with oyster shells whose brightness in the morning light made his eyes clench up."
Worth a look to just dip your imagination into a raw, wry masculine style. Recommended to short story lovers & fans of USA fiction.
"At times such as these, you get a good, humble feeling, like the gods made this place, this moment, first and concocted you as an afterthought just to be there and enjoy it."
I was reading this while sitting outside practice rooms while my daughter was at a weekend-long flute workshop. I kept feeling ashamed of myself, like I'd done something really wrong that I knew was really wrong, but I couldn't think of anything I'd actually done. Then I realized that the shame of the characters was leaching into my own emotions. My spouse says I should stop reading books like this if I'm going to feel this way afterward. I'm not about to take his advice, but I will work harder to recognize it's happening before the shame really sets in.
The final story about the inner life of a Viking warrior is my favorite of the collection. I enjoyed how the Vikings in the story had such complex interactions and reactions to things. They would do these extremely brutal things that they're supposed to revel in or at least consider just part of a day's work, but instead a few are just burned out on pillaging and just want to settle down and live in peace. I tend not to think of Vikings as real people, but of course they were; this story (although fiction) helped me see the nuanced reactions they may well have had to all of the violence.