Wells Tower is all the rage in the book world. His first story collection “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” received not only two gushing reviews in the New York Times, but a flattering profile of the author by Eric Konigsberg.
Excitement about a new writer on the scene is contagious. By the time I got down to my local independent bookstore, the book was already out of first printings. At the nearby Barnes & Noble, there was still one copy available, but I had to dance with the clerk over which was the author’s last name to find it.
I opened the short volume knowing the late-blooming 35-year-old had cut his teeth on Barry Hannah and Larry Brown and expecting work on the same level. I wanted a book I could urge on all my reading friends. I wanted the stories to live up to the great title, and I almost got there; perhaps if I had started at the end, I would have been more satisfied.
The last story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the piece from which the title of the book is taken. It’s a very funny, careful story totally unlike any of the others in this collection. For one thing, it is neither set in a contemporary time nor set in some un-named American coastal area; rather it is a tale of a somewhat rag-tag bunch of Viking warriors reluctantly mustering for yet another voyage across the sea to pillage Northumbria.
The narrator is lying about at home with a new wife when the “boss on our ship and a fool for warfare” decides it is time for another fight. His unmarried slob of an oar-mate “wasn’t big on warrioring. He was just crazy for boat. He’d have rowed from his shack to his shithouse if somebody would invent a ship whose prow could cut sod.”
As it turns out the Viking’s target, Lindisfarne, is “sacked-out already. If you don’t recall, we pillaged the tar out of those people on the last swing through, and I doubt they’ve come up with much in the meantime to justify a trip.” Such is the sort of clever slang scattered throughout, although the story has much to say about how the human race evolved from mayhem and brutality to domesticity and compassion.
The other stories are not nearly as comprehensive in scope. They stay closer to home with messed up parents, marriages, neighbors, co-workers, misfits, and siblings. Tower’s observations of the details of people’s appearance, language, and habits are what redeem his lack of narrative drive. Perhaps this is what excites his reviewers…and me. Most stories have some nugget of freshness and surprise.
In “Executors of Important Energies” the narrator struggles with a father who has gone off the rails at sixty and a stepmother of forty who has already run-off with another guy and still craves attention. “Lucy grew depressed. She blamed her body, and punished it with starvation diets and triathlons. At the height of her regime, she was a new kind of creature, a lemur’s head stuck to the body of a springbok.” She brings his dad to visit him in New York where he befriends a homeless chess player in Washington Square Park, invites him along to dinner with the three of them, and insults the servers and other customers leaving the frustrated son to pick up the pieces and the tab.
Two thirteen year old cousins in “Wild America” pit their budding sexuality against each other in a competition for male attention. What begins for the less experienced Jacey as a mercy date with a classmate who fawned over her turns into a marijuana-driven triumph for Maya. Tower nails the poor kid caught in the middle of this: “He’d been homeschooled until eighth grade. A boy of mixed interests, he was good on the trombone and was also aspiring to be a burnout. His crowds included both the doofs of the marching band and those lesser hippies who kicked Hacky Sack on the farthest circle of the school’s doper scene. His eyes watered, and he so often had a piece of food in the corner of his mouth that you wondered if he kept it in a bedside saucer overnight and donned it in the morning.” Maya winds up with this kid, and Jacey runs off in anger only to stumble into a one-armed older guy drinking beer who hustles her before taking her home. This is not a happy tale.
So the stories of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned accumulate with their losers and dreamers and end with that of the wonderful Viking pillagers. Tower has plenty of talent and this is an auspicious start to his writing career; it’s his Dubliners, which might (or might not) just lead to a Ulysses.