Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

I’ve been a big fan of Wells Tower since I first read his short story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” in a fiction -writing workshop. The story is incredible–really up there with one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s basically about a pack of aging, disenchanted viking marauders who go on a raid of a local village in part because they are trying to keep up with their younger, blood-thirsty counterparts, and in part, because they’re bored. The prose is beautiful–even when the events being described are anything but–and the voices and dialog are incredibly funny. They sound like surfers half the time, which is also just jarring and hilarious and unexpected and totally perfect all at once.

The surprising part, though, was that although Tower had been published in a variety of high profile journals (like The Paris Review) and was the recipient of a number of impressive awards (like the Pushcart Prize), he didn’t have a book of short stories out for quite a long time. He wrote quite a bit of journalism–including a wonderful piece for Harper’s which tells about his experience attending a young Republican convention called “The Kids Are Far Right,” which I highly recommend reading–but it didn’t look like a fiction collection was going to be available any time in the near future.

And then, to my utter delight, his collection was released in April 2009. I’ll admit–not all of the stories are near as good as the title story, and one of his stories (“On the Show”) was rewritten (there was a previously published version) in a way which I felt really didn’t work. But overall, it’s a really stellar collection, and Tower seems to me to be the heir to the Southern Gothic tradition that I love so much. So go read the book. But first, read my review, which was published for The L Magazine, either on their site, or below.

There’s also a review of the book in The New York Times, although I actually think it’s more of an extended summary than a review.

And…last thing, I promise…there’s also a great “book trailer” for the title story on YouTube, awesomely animated and read by Tower, here.

***

In his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower paints a fragmented portrait of domestic upheaval and uneasy reconciliation. Peopling his darkly humorous, deadpan stories with estranged husbands and senile fathers, neglectful caregivers and aimless children, Tower explores the inadequacy of familial relationships and the anxiety provoked by ever-present yet inscrutable threats to one’s safety and happiness. A leopard stalks the woods outside a young boy’s home. A rapist lurks around a traveling carnival. A group of malcontent Vikings enact a brutal raid on a peaceful island village out of sheer boredom.

The tension rarely breaks the surface of the stories, but rather (with a nod to the grotesqueries of the Southern Gothic) manifests itself in the physical degradation of the collection’s cast of psoriasis-ridden, pimpled misfits. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a young man’s young stepmother becomes the sole provider for her rapidly degenerating husband. Our first image of her is of “…her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks… her right eye… bloodshot and brimming with brine.” We meet a predatory hiker with a severely scarred arm in “Wild America,” and a child with a knack for lying who wakes up with a fungal infection on his lip in “Leopard.” It’s emotional poverty made visible, internal conflict inescapably displayed on the body.

It is this threat from within that comes to define the collection. For Tower’s characters are not only at odds with wildcats and menacing strangers. Ultimately, they struggle against their own worse impulses, their own cruelty. It’s a conflict most clearly expressed in the title story. A cadre of cynical marauders are party to a raid on a nearby village. Unimpressed by their younger, enthusiastic counterparts, the veterans still watch unfazed as a monk is subjected to what is inventively known as a “blood eagle,” and local daughters are swept away for brides. “…I got an understanding of how terrible love can be,” muses the narrator, once retired from his life of pillaging. “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself.”

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