Wells Tower’s first collection of short stories meditates on danger and beauty—and it’s funny as hell.
You’d be forgiven, upon learning that the title story in Wells Tower’s debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, concerns a band of Viking marauders who use phrases like “We got to get it on,” for expecting a certain kind of book. You know the kind: purposefully zany. The kind you purchase against your better judgment, eager for lightness and yuks; once the self-congratulatory cleverness becomes too much—about three and half stories in—buyer’s remorse looms large. You flip repeatedly to the author photo, detecting a smugness you hadn’t noticed in the bookstore. Ultimately, you leave the book next to the toilet.
What a delight, then, to discover that Tower is not a gag-meister at all but an extremely gifted and compassionate writer, with a lot more on his mind than hitting the irony button over and over. The writing on every page of Everything Ravaged is nuanced, complex and true. Even when he stumbles—and a few of these stories fail to add up—Tower earns our respect by virtue of his ambition, and of the care with which he sculpts his fictional worlds. What this collection mostly does is sing. Beautifully.
The title story (which many readers first came across in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories) is a tour de force. In it, our Viking narrator, Harald, sets out with his cohorts to re-sack the much-sacked island of Lindisfarne with all the enthusiasm of a middle manager heading to a convention at the DoubleTree. He’d much rather be back home with his common-law, getting started on a brood. The story gives us dragons, a one-armed seamstress, and a Tasmanian Devil of warfare named Djarf (one of the funniest characters I’ve read in ages – his backstory alone is nearly worth the price of admission), alongside prose like this:
“But when we came into the bright little bay, a quiet fell over all of us. Even the hockchoppers quit grab-assing and looked. The place was wild with fields of purple thistle, and when the wind blew, it twitched and rolled, like the hide of some fantastic animal shrugging in its sleep. Wildflowers spurted on the hills in fat red gouts.”
The gouts soon get literal, as blood is spilled, and in this context they serve as both spectacle and substance. The story is a dark, gorgeously detailed meditation on the terrible burden of loving someone in a violent world. All that and it’s funny as hell.
Things are darker still in “On the Show.” A highly readable version of this story appeared in Harper’s in 2007, centering on a young man’s escape to a traveling carnival in a backwater town, but that version now seems like a mere warm-up. Here, we experience the “show” in all of its vivid, heartbreaking detail from multiple points of view—a crooked ride operator, a fumbling middle-aged couple on a first date, and so on. The narratives chafe against one another, informing one another, and a heinous crime early on generates suspense that crackles through each of them. The story is as stirring and as wide-ranging as a symphony.
Tower is clearly interested in violence—the threat of it around us, our attraction to it, our capability to inflict it. In “Down through the Valley,” a man is pushed to the brink after enduring a car ride with his ex-wife’s new-agey lover. Let’s just say he fails to maintain. That his climactic meltdown is one of the least effective passages in Everything Ravaged has something to do with his bitterness, which has kept us at emotional bay. But it also has to do with the fact that in this collection, title story included, violence is most powerful when it lurks just off-screen: as it does in “Leopard,” in the form of a conniving fifteen-year-old boy’s thuggish, domineering stepfather (in a wonderful touch, the stepfather is a thin, delicate man with wire-framed glasses); and in “Wild America,” which gives us Jacey, an adolescent girl driven by jealousy to make some questionable choices in the woods. Each of these stories also benefits from a charming, fully realized viewpoint character—no quick synopsis can convey the extent to which you’ll begin to care about these people and wish to see them delivered from harm.
Ditto Albert, the cantankerous, housebound eighty-three-year-old narrator of “Door in Your Eye,” who develops an interest in the less-than-honorable comings and goings at the apartment of a woman across the street. We quickly suspect that Albert will venture over there to investigate, and when he does, Tower has great fun undermining our expectations.
The best stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned unfold that way: with the unpredictability of life and all of its attendant dangers. It’s those dangers that keep us reading. When a character in “On the Show” shows up for the tenth time at the Pirate, a rickety, boat-themed carnival ride, we understand just where she’s coming from: “Go on, now,” she tells the operator. “Get this thing moving. Get me as high as you can.”