The first things you feel are joy and awe. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (FSG, 2009), Wells Tower’s first collection, are pieces that care, first and last, about telling a damn good story. A block-bodied girl uses psy-ops against her impossibly beautiful ballerina cousin. A man slums it on the coast, waiting for his wife’s anger over an affair to cool off so he can go home. A little boy pretends to be sick so he doesn’t have to go to school and have everyone make fun of the burger-shaped fungal infection on his face; instead, he stays at home and is forced to deal with his stepfather’s unyielding demands and salt-of-the-earth instability. Each of these characters is fully realized, selfish and greedy, funny and resourceful. We enjoy spending time with them, and with the well-crafted stories they inhabit. Tower’s use of compression and summary to contextualize poignant or dramatic scenes is elegant and efficient. The granular and hilarious detailing of landscapes—North Carolina’s landscapes, in particular, are exuberantly and beautifully rendered in this collection—and characters is solid, remarkable. The virtuosic moments in Tower’s prose make us gape, wince, laugh out loud: the hilarious or heart-rending one-liners, the hard-eyed endings, the way in which objects are imbued with astonishing, imagined inner lives of their own.
But about halfway through, the ecstatic feelings begin to sour. Page by page, story by story, we begin to doubt the purpose of these stories, to doubt our right to the pleasure we felt reading the first half of the book. These darker feelings accrete, solidify. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, it must be said, are relentlessly cynical. The blurbs on the book jacket and the front-page review in the New York Times Book Review spin this as a virtue, but after 230 pages, this reader became candy-sick of cleverness. The rotting world of the traveling carnival in “On the Show” owes a great deal to Flannery O’Connor’s tell-it-like-it-is approach to human evil and vanity, and the title story (despite it’s O’Connor-ish title) is heavily indebted to George Saunders and his trademark mode of history as colonized by a contemporary spirit of gleeful anachronicity that talks a little like a TV-addicted teenager and a little like a Human Resources mediator. The heartlessness in many of these stories leaves us feeling the debt more than the gratitude; O’Connor and Saunders both use their stories to point the way away from greed and selfishness toward more difficult but ultimately more rewarding paths. Tower seems less interested in pointing the way towards those brighter roads. The lack of light in the collection left me feeling lost.
So you’re disappointed for a few hours, a few days, definitely less than a week, before you realize that thing you always have to realize (or re-realize) after you have finished listening to a powerful voice. Wells Tower is not the voice of the world. He is one voice pleading its case, making its argument, trying to describe a world and how it works. And he makes the case well, telling stories about deep and layered characters dealing with difficult and very human problems. Even Mr. Tower’s tendency to end stories abruptly feels perfectly suited to the life-ain’t-what-its-cracked-up-to-be, get-used-to-it-kid jadedness of the stories’ narrators. But we are not obliged to agree with this assessment of the universal darkness and unavoidable wreckage that accompanies all human behavior. The book is what it is. We are who we are. The world keeps spinning and incredibly, miraculously, no one is thrown off.
– Here’s a story from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (from B&N’s website).
– Read two of Wells Tower’s pieces published in the Believer: “Light: The Sky Kind” (July 2003) and “Tool: Stanley Tools Magnetic Wall Stud Finder 47-400” (May 2003). And here is a great travel essay, “Meltdown,” from Outside.
– Here is Tower’s story “Leopard,” published by the New Yorker (November 10, 2008).
– On Salon, listen to the author read from his story “Down through the Valley,” published by the Paris Review.
– Animator Chris Roth offers this adaptation of the title story (which you can read in its original form on the publisher’s website):