Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned takes its title from the name of the final story in the collection, but the phrase is also an apt descriptor for the underlying themes that most of these stories explore. Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.
There’s Bob Monroe in “The Brown Coast,” who has “perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over.” He’s lost his wife and his job, but he finds a measure of solace in adding fish to an aquarium–until that project is ravaged. There’s the father of “Down through the Valley” — estranged against his will — who attempts to make nice by driving his ex’s injured new husband home from a New Age retreat. The poor guy, like so many of the characters here, stumbles into one bad situation after another. He’s not the only dad here — there are plenty of fathers in Everything Ravaged, and there’s also a strong undercurrent of Oedipal rage. In “Leopard,” (written in that rare beast, the second-person), Tower explores the psyche of an angry pre-adolescent boy who hates his dickish stepfather. When the lad discovers a flier warning that a pet leopard is on the loose, he fantasizes that the creature will solve his problem. The teenage lead of “Wild America” — the only female protagonist in the book — lives with the shame of having “tried to stab her shy father with a nail file.” In “The Brown Coast,” Bob calls his home to find that his Uncle has taken up with his wife. “Executors of Important Energies” brims with Oedipal tension, as a failed inventor has to come to terms with his father’s dementia. He’s had to live most of his life in ambivalence over his stepmother, who splits the age difference between him and his father:
The particulars weren’t absolutely clear, but I had a hunch that somewhere around my sixteenth birthday, he was going to take me out to a desert overlook where the sun was going down and announce that he was giving Lucy to me, along with his Mustang fastback, along with some Schlitz, and maybe a cassette tape that was nothing but “Night Moves” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.”
If “Night Moves” is the dream, Seger’s “Beautiful Loser” is the reality for most of the characters in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And Tower’s world is strangely beautiful, an evocatively drawn portrait of the little rural pockets that permeate the American Southeast. Sure, there’s a story set in New York City, and “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is about Vikings in the Dark Ages, but for the most part Tower sticks to the weird, unstable borders between civilization and wilderness. It’s a world where seemingly peripheral characters all of a sudden fall into the narrative as essential players; it’s a violent world–and an engrossing one.
“Retreat” might be the finest of the stories here. It tells the story of two long-warring brothers who try, at least on the surface, to make amends. The protagonists (or, more rightly mutual antagonists) are typical of Tower: rough and physical, but also prone to moodiness and obsessive self-reflection. There are two versions of the story, initially published in issues 23 and 30 of McSweeney’s. The one published here is the later version, told from the perspective of the more financially-prosperous brother (the first is told from the viewpoint of the less well-off brother. Both brothers are total assholes). We kinda sorta wish that both versions were included in the collection, because they’ve come to form a composite story in our mind, but hey, you can’t always get what you want. “Retreat” unfurls in muscular, organic prose, bristling with fresh metaphors and similes. Great stuff.
Tower is a writing talent that we’ve been following for awhile now, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the sort of book that makes you want to track down the stray stories not collected here (a good starting place for those interested: “Raw Water” in McSweeney’s 32). And while we’ll never knock the short story as a lesser form, surely this man has a novel waiting in the wings. We’d love to read it. We very highly recommend Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is available today in trade paperback from Picador.