Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

February 23, 2010

There is the definite danger that I am more impressed by this collection of short stories than I ought to be. I read this while celebrating my liberation from The Help and, therefore, I may not be able to celebrate the joy of the two events. Even so, this is a well-written collection of short stories.

Over at Tony’s Book World, there was a discussion of Nelson Algren a few days ago. I commented on Simone de Beauvoir who was Algren’s lover and who is one of my favorite authors. Someone, Tony, I think, mentioned he was getting ready to read de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed which is a collection of three stories. The title story of that collection is devastating and brings fully to life the emotional destruction of a woman.

I bring this up because Wells Tower could have named his collection, and at least one of his stories, The Man Destroyed. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a great name too. The men who populate most of these nine stories are damaged and broken.

Retreat, possibly my favorite of the stories, dissects a bitter rivalry between two failing brothers. The story opens with this paragraph:

Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, age six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk. The water came up only to my knees, so I did some hog-on-ice staggering before completing the belly flop. My friends laughed until they wept. Our mother put Stephen across her lap and beat his calves red with the hard side of her hairbrush, which, in the eyes of my guests, only confirmed Stephen as a heroic little comedian willing to suffer for his art.

The narrator, Matthew, is a real estate speculator and, after relating several stories which outline his relationship with his brother, calls his brother from atop a mountain in Aroostook County, Maine he “recently bought.” The phone call dialogue makes it clear that the brothers have not much progressed from their childhood skirmishes. Before they are through with the phone call, Matthew has invited Stephen to fly out to Maine and Stephen accepts on Matthew’s dime.

Matthew describes Stephen, the younger brother, in the following terms:

He’s not a churchman, but he’s extremely big on piety and sacrifice and letting you know what fine values he’s got. As far as I can tell, these values consist of little more than eating ramen noodles by the case, getting laid once every fifteen years or so, and arching his back at the sight of people like me — that is, people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores.

Matthew, on the other hand, describes himself in terms reminiscent in tone and substance of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe.

I, on the other hand, have always understood that life is an as-is, no-warranty arrangement, and if you want it to add up to anything, you’d better go at it with fire in your gut.[…]Late at night, when rest won’t come and my breathing shortens with the worry that my ambition might have robbed me of some of life’s traditional rewards (long closeness, offspring, mature plantings), I take an astral tour of the hundreds of properties that have passed through my hands over the years.

The story progresses nicely with numerous surprises along the way. The plot doubles and triples back, never allowing the reader to develop too firm expectations. There is humor, both biting and light, interspersed with the painful to watch sibling squabbles. Tower brings all this together with a pleasantly ambiguous ending. In all, it is a very good story with, to borrow a phrase from a blurb on a former TOB contender, “earned emotion.”

There is a bit of unevenness in the stories, but they were all still interesting enough and sufficiently well-written to be enjoyable. Tower is best when exploring the relationships between men, but even the story about the relationship of two teenage girls feels authentic. From these teenage girls to an adult daughter and her elderly father to a young boy and his stepfather to a man and his ex’s new husband, Tower provides entertaining insights into human interactions with a flair that will be fun to watch as Tower’s writing continues to develop.

This is not a landmark work in the development of the short story, but it is a very solid example of the form. You can do worse, much, much worse, than pick up this nice little package. The stories are not uplifting. You won’t feel good about yourself and humanity after reading them. But, they just might show you something about the world you had not noticed before.