Review of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Farrar, Straus And Giroux
The literary world is always on the lookout for the next bright writing star. They are always looking to canonise, to put forward a fresh new voice as the voice of a generation or new literary consciousness.
Award winning Wells Tower is the latest such discovery, a new star burning incandescent in the literary firmament. His debut collection of short stories coming in the wake of The Plimpton Prize as well as two Pushcart prizes and stories published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeneys and The Paris Review assured him both critical and commercial success.
But what exactly are the literary merits of this new chronicler of America’s urban malaise? His stories, as collected under the apocalyptic title Every Ravaged Everything Burned are reminiscent of the stories of John Cheever in the way they focus on urban American suburbia, plumbing the depths of their neurosis and angst and laying bare the manifold impulses that propel the actions of these denizens of the free world.
Towers stories are, however, different in a few particulars, his approach is not cynical and he uses a copious dose of humor to distil his message which is tinged, almost always, with sadness.
From the opening story ‘The Brown Coast’ where a man is cast out of his house by his wife upon discovering his infidelity to the title story ‘Everything ravaged, everything burned’ where a band of pirates after plundering a people take home one of the ladies as wife, Tower tells tales that smart with sadness and wit.
The stories are real without coyness and they are never judgmental. Tower writes in a way that makes the reader a part of the process by always leaving the reader to fill in the blank spaces.
In ‘Executors of Important Energies’, a man who may or may not be losing his memory strikes up a friendship with a homeless man who may or may not have been a professional musician.
In Wells Tower’s stories, nothing is ever what it seems and there are never any neat endings because he is constantly questioning, forever shifting the boundaries of our exactitudes.
In ‘Retreat’, sibling rivalry is not dulled by time and becomes no more than something that poisons every relationship.
Wells Tower writes about the common place, marital infidelity, blossoming sexuality, sibling rivalry, sexual abuse, unraveling marriages as well as physical, mental and professional decline but his stories are imbued with something extra, some wisdom that is both obvious and rare.
He writes about death, accident, sexual abuse with clinical precision. In “On the show” as one of the hands gets his skull cracked Tower writes: “He is gone in communion with some far off thing when he loses the rhythm of the Zipper, fails to sense the wind against his skin. The angle prow of the barreling car smacks him on the back of the bulge of his skull. The car carries him for a moment, then drops him in the sand.”
In the same story, when a young boy is sexually abused, Tower writes: “The privy is yellow plastic, brand name Honeypot. The man pulls shut the Honeypot’s door. “Here we go – safe,” the man says and slides the black tab across the jamb.”
The irony is thick but grows after a report is made and the police begin to investigate. Tower sells us a dummy by presenting a cast of characters who fit the bill of the victim, but nothing, as always in the stories of this master craftsman, is ever what it seems.
By Toni Kan