Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories
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The way we live now, dig? We need books like Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories in this new fiction collection by Wells Tower are set mostly in the places we do not wish to vacation in, but where many of us live. These are grim suburbs. Rings of shopping centers. Towns delineated by restaurants.
The stories open with hangovers, fuel themselves on lousy food, and often end in extended, involuntary vacations. This isn't The Grapes of Wrath , to be sure. Tower doesn't offer much hope. Nor does he offer an elegy. And yet what his portraits lack in grandeur, they compensate for in their accuracy. The America depicted here is jittery and exhausted. Nobody solves the crime. And nobody gets away with anything.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower | Fiction Writers Review
The characters muddle on through. They get drunk and they get sad and they go broke and they perform weird acts of kindness, and sometimes they invade smaller countries for no good reason. I mean they live the way we Americans do. But the stories are very funny, and surprising, and possess a rugged beauty. He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence. His debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned , is as its apocalyptic title suggests an astonishingly well-stocked smorgasbord of cruelty, coercion, insult, and predation.
Tower, who grew up in North Carolina, has been seeding these stories patiently across magazines and literary journals over the last ten years or so, quietly building a reputation as a painstaking stylist devoted to the near-impossible art of highly polished colloquialism. Reading his work piecemeal as it emerged, what stood out most was the lovely warmth of his voice.
His sentences are strenuously musical, full of careful detail and surprising metaphors 'sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range'. He has a special talent for channeling the idiosyncrasies of lower-middle-class speech, and his plots often weave around bright little bursts of incidental dialogue. I didnt realize, until I read the stories back to back, how much ugliness Tower forces that voice to contend with. His fictional universe is a perfectly balanced little biosphere of violence and mercy, aggression and nurturing. Epiphanies are instantly spoiled, scams turn out to be acts of kindness, mercy tips easily into sadism.
When a victim catches a break, he immediately starts prowling for an advantage. And yet, somehow, the book is not cripplingly depressing. Towers voice is too consistently artful and funny and empathetic. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is stuffed with astute psychological insights, pithy social observations and jarringly lovely turns of phrase in one tale, a near-senile attorney watches a waiter pour wine 'as though he were watching a squirrel wash a cracker'.
Thoughtfully structured and builds effectively to its penultimate and best story, 'On the Show. This account of a first date gone horribly wrong reveals Tower's adeptness with longer, multiperspective narratives, where his thematic concerns and characterizations have room to breathe. It's an amazingly funny and smart debut.
Towers families and hapless men are bent and broken in a multitude of surprising and delightful ways.
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His style is perfectly suited to short fiction: 'Down Through the Valley,' in less than twenty pages, is jammed with more pathos than a four-hundred-page potboiler. There is always, just off the margins, a kind of dread and cruelty lurking, waiting to burst onto the page. The ambient unease of 'Down Through the Valley' soon erupts past terror into violence, displaced onto a bystander. There and elsewhere, the author is eerily, painfully adept at observing the exact moment of our own self-destruction, when the implicit becomes horribly overt.
Wells Tower: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
The title story, Tower's most bighearted and sentimental, is not coincidentally the one in which the violence is least sublimated: The story chronicles the marital and pillaging difficulties of a roaming band of blood-soaked Vikings. I laughed out loud eight times during the first one, 'The Brown Coast,' and had a silly smile on my face throughout most of them.
The guy in this story works with his hands and is down on his luck. He tries to put together something beautiful out of the creatures he finds in the tidal pools, but a thing that looks like it came out of a sewer poisons them all. When he throws the horrible creature at some beautiful people, they just sail away with a smile. There's a metaphor for most of the characters in Wells Tower's debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. There's also a metaphor in 'Retreat,' in which a guy who, after being caught off guard in the real estate market, buys a mountaintop in hopes of selling chunks of it to 'the sad paunchy hordes' as hunting escapes.
The stink of it all is inescapable when he shoots a huge moose, only to find out that its flesh is bloated and rotten. He sticks a fork of it into his mouth anyway. Our reluctant hero spits up 'something hot and thick' on his chin while being held down by a cop with a 'junior-size aluminum bat. Even the kids have it tough. In 'Leopard,' an year-old boy has a sore on his upper lip that looks like a miniature hamburger. He sets up a little revenge scenario against his stepfather, but, guess what? A cop shows up first and the plot fails.
As he cowers before his angry stepfather, he listens for an apocryphal leopard he has seen on a 'lost pet' poster to come loping across the lawn to attack the guy. Not a chance, kid. A story about a bunch of grunts who hump a vicious attack on a small island. But, get this: They aren't modern army grunts; they just sound that way. They are Vikings, man! When they finally get back home, the main character is glad to be with his wife, but he knows that they could also get attacked, and he lies awake at night listening for the sound of men with swords rowing toward his home.
Heavy, man, heavy. Yes, I had fun reading these stories, but I have this uneasy feeling I'll hate myself in the morning. It comes from an s guide to the West. The preemption law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he "breaks for the high timber," "'clears out for the New Purchase," or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over. The title story, set during the Viking era, is simultaneously unlike anything else in the collection and the best example of what Tower is up to.
The characters are, yes, marauding Vikings who attack a neighboring island without provocation. Although Harald, the narrator, feels he has outgrown the whole rape-and-pillage game, and although his wife urges him to stay home, he hops on the longboat and then watches as his compatriots go 'on a real binge,' hanging monks from trees. The pathos in this story comes not from the brutality itself, but from Harald's curious detachment, which he conveys in riveting sentences. Here's his description of a grotesque ritual called the 'blood eagle': '[Djarf] placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod's spine.
He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he'd made an incision about a foot long. Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod's lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings. I had to turn away myself.
They are real-estate developers, carpenters, and entrepreneur inventors, bumbling through life, alienating their spouses, relatives, and friends. Tower isn't the first writer to document the anti-social American spirit, but he's a keen observer of how the drive to break out of confinement rarely leads to true release.
Tower's characters have inherited the frontier mentality, but the wilderness they're taking on is no longer a physical space: It's other people and themselves. Nor does Tower give them the solacing illusion that in this destructive process, they are claiming their freedom. Tower is adept at capturing the many ways men can be unhappy, lonely, stymied or adrift, and his language has the virtuoso inventivenessof Barry Hannah, that magic-trick quality that can make a description of an overcast sky feel new and strange.
His characters come across like aliens, possessing the kind of maverick weirdness that marks them as real people rather than types. Hes also got a knack for pacing and a hell of a sense of humor. I so enjoyed 'The Brown Coast,' the collections first story, I read it twice before proceeding through the rest of the book.
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I laughed out loud eight times during the first one. May, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Sharply funny. Obliquely devastating. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are both entertaining and of a philosophical piece. You need to read them, now. Full of pity and terror, they are also great fun to read. Wells Tower has written a brilliant book. With the oversized heart of George Saunders, the demon tongue of Barry Hannah, and his very own conjuring tools that cannot here be named, Tower writes stories of aching beauty that are as crushingly funny and sad as any on the planet.
His style is perfectly suited to short fiction. Tower possesses a gift for evoking the natural world through comparisons to mundane objects. The stories often inform and deepen one another by showing how easily expectations can be upended by happenstance. The sentiment, so characteristic of Tower at his best, is bittersweet, beautiful, and ardently conflicted.
Tower's stories could last 15 rounds with Donald Ray Pollock's story collection Knockemstiff , after which both volumes would likely scrape themselves off the mat, bloody and raw, and go split a bottle of rotgut whiskey.
Most of these stories have first-person narrators, many of them middle-aged men, who turn to alcohol to numb the pain of familial discord or divorce. Not that all of these narratives are variations on a single theme.