Review Monday: Wells Tower is Burning

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
by Wells Tower
Published March 17, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write more reviews in this space,so I’ll start with one that is about 17 months late because really, not enough praise can be heaped on Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

Towers is a recovering punk-rocker and p.r. copy-writer. He found some success at the Washington Post Magazine and Harper’s in reported pieces before returning to his earlier forays in fiction.

Tower creates wonderful male narrators throughout this collection. In “Down Through the Valley,” ex-husband Ed begins reconstructing his life after a divorce. Small regrets build themselves atop larger ones.

And she was right: I did wind up ruing it, but after a while, neither often nor deeply. Jane bought out my share of our house at a fair price. I took a place outside of town, a redone shotgun cottage on six acres with a creek running through the yard. The house suited me well, except for a million black wasps chewing holes in the clapboards. The little fellows made an awful grinding racket, and on weekend afternoons when feelings of failure and regret could not be kept at bay, I found pleasant distraction in squirting poison up those holes.

I dug myself a garden, and a stray cat I grew to like would come around to sulk in the corn. I forced myself to seek new love, and for a while, I thought I’d found it with a girl from my office. She was molten in my bed, but she also suffered depressions that were very dear to her. She would often call just to sigh at me for two hours on the phone, wanting me to applaud her depth of feeling. I cut it off, then missed her, wishing that I’d at least had the sense to take her naked photograph.

The above provides a good sample of Tower’s style: firm and pretty. These sentences deliver melody without showy melisma. We can see Tower’s men stand at a distance from themselves, better to observe and report. But this initial detachment is turned to good effect. Whether these men finally break into violence or, for the first time, forsake it, we feel that they are finally making themselves protagonists in their own lives.

Sometimes they do it in a a small, confused way – but that’s short fiction. Ed lets his frustration with his wive’s new love-interest boil over from snotty jealousy to misdirected aggression. A son overcomes a paralyzing contempt and for once helps his now-ailing father. Albert, an old man, takes leave of his daughter’s porch to say ‘hullo’ to the whore next door.

Indulge me in being a spokesman. For a generation of male readers over-weened by educational institutions and pop-culture from age six to twenty-six or beyond, who know feeling well and doing little, who aspired to conquer our worlds by fitting into them, Tower’s stories are deeply consoling. And challenging: these characters break out from comment to creation. There are women and children in this collection as well, and though each of these nine stories is well-polished, it is the men who stick.

There is a class-awareness in Tower’s fiction, up-to-date and managed without Tom Wolfe-style dives into broadcloth. In “Retreat” a narrator who lives highly but precariously as a property developer invites his unambitious but relatively secure brother for a hunt. Our developer exquisitely torments his prey. “‘Maybe a shit-fit would make you feel better.’ I did some theatrical sniveling, and he went livid.” But the status-anxiety is merely the context for larger and more humane themes. Tower is generous enough to allow us to glimpse this developer’s sincere aspirations for his brother, stalking just behind his taunts and goading.

In her review of Jonathan Frazen’s Freedom, Ruth Franklin warns us not to overpraise books that turn on our waterworks.

But beware such tears. When we cry at a book or a film, it is often not because it is genuinely moving, in the sense that it has succeeded in shaking and even altering our previous understanding of life, but because its sentimentality is uncomfortably at odds with our own knowledge of what life is really like, and we are being offered a swift transit back to our sweet dreams. It is wish fulfillment, and also self-pity, that makes us weep.

She is mostly right, but Tower gives a counter-example. There is paragraph in Everything Ravaged that makes the eyes go sour, almost instantly and by surprise. OIt is not some fault of Tower’s or yours. At the last moment in the collection’s funniest and most surreal story comes a paragraph on manhood and the happy home so shockingly powerful it is difficult to name all the beasts it summons: shame, fear, recognition, and humility are there. That Tower could conjure these so quickly from a deadpan line that begins, “I got an understanding of how terrible love could be” puts him in the contemporary genius category with Nam Le and, yes, Franzen too. It is the kind of thing that once an author does it you vow never to miss their work in the future.

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