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New York Review of Books
Monday, May 11th, 2009
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Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories

by Wells Tower

The World We Live In

A review by Deborah Eisenberg

The phrase "well-crafted" suggests an unfortunate analogy between a piece of fiction and a piece of furniture. And there is a surprising amount of fiction around that is reasonably accomplished and graceful, or strikingly ornamented, or that skillfully reproduces previous successes in structure or tone and yet feels synthetic and inert -- made up, in short, rather than like something that has been transcribed from a revelatory vision.

That cannot be said of Wells Tower's wonderful first collection of short fiction, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories are indeed solid and polished; in fact, they're conspicuously artful, but proficiency -- obviously a sine qua non of any good work -- and finesse are irritating only when they substitute for soul, and this book seems to have come forth from a deep, disruptive source. The stories live and breathe with purpose.

Elements of the book will be familiar. We find men and women who struggle to maintain themselves but slip through classes -- downward; people whose lives and fates are opaque and bewildering to them though the general outlines of these lives and fates could be discerned by a stranger on the street; and in both exposition and dialogue there is an improvisatory elegance of diction, a specifically American bounce.

It might be felt that characters in disarray and their speech have been overrepresented in contemporary American fiction, so, lest the above description stay your hand at the bookstore, let me hasten to say first that these stories are set in a wide world, and second that the book is not yet one more writer's dutiful trudge through the transgressive. Even the most damaged of Tower's characters are seen in natural light and ordinary scale, rather than as monumental outcasts on a stage under romanticizing or sensationalizing spotlights; Tower's characters aren't copies of anything, they conform to no formulae, the world they live in is the one we live in, and we encounter them, thanks to the author's skill and conviction, as only one particular writer could offer them up.

Tower presents an exceptionally lucid and persuasive view of the complex mechanisms of his characters' psyches and the destinies that are spun out from their workings. Ed, the somewhat hotheaded narrator of "Down Through the Valley," accedes to a request from his estranged wife Jane: Jane -- for whom Ed still longs, as he makes a point of not telling us -- has been spending the summer at an ashram with their small daughter, Marie, and Barry, the (intolerable) "meditation instructor" for whom she (understandably) left Ed. But she is to be "on a session," and Barry has broken his ankle so he can't look after Marie or drive to get help. Will Ed please come -- a trip of several hours -- to pick up Barry and Marie? Ed recalls:

We reached the car, and I held the door open for him, but he didn't climb in right away. He stood there rocking on his crutch, gazing off at the sky and the fields and the fall trees starting to go the color of sherbet. He scratched his sooty beard and took in loud, greedy breaths. "Man, will I miss this," he said. "Actual, clean air. Thank God there's something left the bastards haven't been able to slap a brand name on yet. Kills me to leave this place."

A flock of geese is passing, and Barry proprietarily hoists up Marie to watch:

With her eyes on the geese, Marie tugged idly on Barry's ear with her scabby little hand. I watched them, and they watched the geese, which called to each other in voices like nails being pulled from old boards.

I put the front seat up so Barry could crawl into the back and stretch out. He stuck his crutch in first and braced it on the seat as he eased himself into the car. The crutch didn't have a rubber stopper on the tip, and it hung up on the upholstery and ripped a little crown-shaped hole in the vinyl. Barry looked at me to see if I'd seen it, then gave a guilty wince.

"Ah, jeez," he said. "Barry, you clumsy son of a bitch."

I let out a breath. "No big thing," I told him.

He fingered the tear. "Tell you what. We'll get one of those kits. You know those things they sell? We can fix this, easy."

"Not a hole that big you can't. Forget it."

I moved to put the seat back, but Barry put his arm against it. "Hey, hey, hold on a second, Ed."

"What?"

"You don't need to get short with me. We'll fix it. If we can't do it ourselves, take it to a place, on me. Really."

"Nobody's getting short," I told him. "This car's a bucket. I could buy another one for what it'd cost to fix that rip. Now watch your arm."

"Can I give you a few bucks at least?" He reached for his wallet.

"No."

As they start off, Ed sees a looming crag, which "had the look of a crow's head, its beak parted for the worm," and Ed asks his daughter:

"Hey, Marie, what's that rock look like to you?"

She thought it over. "An ass-butt," she said, and laughed like hell.

"Interesting," I said. "I don't see it."

"You know what that is?" Barry chimed in from the back. "That's actually the hardened lava from a dormant volcano. The outer layers of sediment weather much faster, so it just leaves you with a sort of a cast of the core of the mountain."

It's clear that nothing good will come of this increasingly exasperating and tense -- and, for us, entertaining -- trip, but the expectedly disastrous culmination is unexpectedly devastating -- a seismic convulsion of sorrow.

Tower has a special flair for portraying -- with a distinctive alloy of delicacy and near-slapstick humor -- various kinds of emotional blight: sterile and consuming competitiveness, mortification, anarchic rage, eviscerating feelings of shame, inescapable cycles of failure, and the like.

Bob, the easily confused, easily manipulated protagonist of "The Brown Coast," has been knocked off his bearings, to his surprise, by the death of his father, with whom he had never been close. In short order Bob has made a calamitous miscalculation in regard to a house he was helping to build, rear-ended a lawyer who has managed to divest him in court of his inheritance and then some, and subsequently, while in traffic school, attempted to console himself with a dreary affair that has caused his wife to leave him.

Bob's poisonous uncle Randall then dispatches the inconvenient Bob by convincing him that he could collect himself by doing some restorative work on a waterfront property (which, we gather, should belong at least in part to Bob rather than, as it does, entirely to Randall), and Bob finds himself not on a cleansing beach but instead on a dismal and muddy shore, where he is speedily colonized by some cheerful, hard-drinking neighbors, Claire and Derrick:

"What do you do, Bob?" Claire asked him.

"Just kind of on sabbatical, I guess," Bob said. He knocked back his drink and a sour heat bloomed in his stomach. "Probably go back to carpentering before long, what I was doing for a while."

"But what?" Claire asked.

"I built some stairs wrong and got let go. After that, I thought I'd take a little while to get a few things straightened out."

"That doesn't sound right -- stairs," Claire said. "That doesn't sound like anything to get canned about."

Bob explained what it took to build a staircase, how you've got to cut each rise on the stringers exactly the same height, even a sixteenth-inch difference and people will stumble. "I don't know why, but I cut a stair in the middle to six inches instead of eight, just my brain went on the fritz. Then the old man whose house it was came by to see the job. He was going down those stairs, and wham, he fell and landed at the bottom with a broken leg. After that, a lawyer went over with a tape measure and that was it, pretty much."

"That's what I'm talking about," said Claire. "Only in America does somebody get rich off of being too dumb to walk stairs."

"I didn't feel real hot about it," said Bob. "That bone was sticking out pretty good."

Claire shrugged with her face. "Even so."

The dialogue, as in all the stories, is both delightful to the ear and perfectly expressive of each of the characters and of the abysses between them. Tower paints Bob's isolation so vividly, his loss so poignantly, that the story would be almost airless if it weren't so much fun to read, and if it didn't absolutely shimmer with everything that Bob now lacks: some sea creatures Bob hauls up to a neglected aquarium in Randall's house are fragile incarnations of hope, serenity, and beauty. Clearing Randall's obdurate patio on his hands and knees, Bob thinks:

He'd put up a house for himself and Vicky, and when she first saw it finished, she couldn't stop laughing because it looked so good. What a gentle, decent kind of life he'd had with her. What a perfect pageant of disgrace he'd cast himself in now.... .

Swimming one day with Derrick and Claire, Bob watches as "a smoky curtain of squalls" moves in and Claire climbs out of the water:

She stooped and braceleted a dark thigh with her fingers, easing her hand down the length of her leg, stripping the water off in silver peels. Bob watched her dry the second leg this way, and the beauty of it made his throat itch. While Derrick went on about wildlife and currents, Bob coughed into his fist.

The vividness of expression in contrast to the aridity of Bob's prospects, the incongruous collisions between loveliness and inanity, form an anguishing chord that reverberates both with desolation and with the world's luster -- all around us, just out of reach.

One can get into a terrible snarl talking about the matter of narrative, but it's hard to avoid the subject entirely when considering a collection of short fiction, partly because the stories are likely to vary in their aims, partly because there's no overarching plot on which to hang the discussion, and partly because good stories suggest questions about what plot, or (to use the words interchangeably here) narrative, is. That is to say, a plot, of course, is an account of a sequence of events, but how are those events related -- really -- and why do we believe (when we do believe) that they are?

It could be said, as an expedient, that the plot of a given piece of fiction is a phantom organism -- an embodiment and enactment of the author's preoccupations and obsessions -- and that this organism is what allows us to experience the piece's deep pleasures: its insight, its beauty, its mystery, its power -- whatever are the essential properties of the piece; that a plot, like a grammatical structure, is an expression of innate relationships in the mind. Long fiction has room to fill things in whereas short fiction, due to the stringency of selection it imposes, tends to demand a more active role from the reader, who must supply a chargeable receptivity, a medium in which compressed signals can unfold and send an associative web of sparks flying out between them. And it seems to me -- to make yet another broad and possibly somewhat rickety generalization -- that because a work of short fiction must so quickly and unerringly present evidence of the world that lies under its surface, the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile, and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel.

"On the Show" is a story that swoops and whirls like the carnival where it is set, in an otherwise dull Florida town, as each of its many focal characters swing into and out of view and their lives snag one another's and then detach over the course of several hours. It begins:

Now it's dark. The sun has slipped behind the orange groves, disclosing the garbled rainbow of the carnival rides. The blaring reds of the Devil's Choir and the blue-white of the Giant Wheel and the strobing greens of the Orbiter and the chasing yellow and purple of the Chaises Volantes mingle and the sky glows hyena brown. Panic takes hold among the egrets in the drainage canal. They flee for the live-oak tree that surveils the hay-bale corral of the World's Smallest Horse. For a time, the tree moves with a white restlessness of egrets stowing and unstowing their overlong wings.

Shadow falls across the Crab Rangoon stand. A Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank's enamel face into a crescent of deep rust. Against the lizard's belly, the rust's soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard's hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.

The lizard's movement catches the eye of Henry Lemons, seven years old, who reaches for it, curling his fingers so that they form a small damp hollow around the animal.

"What'd you get?" asks Randy Cloatch, age ten, who stands beside him. The two boys just met tonight.

And we're off. Some violent and terrible things happen on this night, and some violent and terrible things have preceded those, but the story presents them no more emphatically than the most tender and fleeting moments. Jeff Park, a young layabout who is "taking a break from school" and sponging off his mother's new, unpleasant, well-off, seventy-year-old husband until "a leggy, grunting scramble happened on the brick floor of the sunroom" and Jeff unrestrainedly beats his stepfather up, finds himself at the carnival, broke and desperate, signing on to work at a ride called the Pirate Ship. A woman appears whose "face is as blank and guileless as a peeled apple." "What type of ride is this?" she asks Jeff Park, who now understands she is blind.

"It's a boat," he says. "You sit on it and it swings."

"Does it go upside down?"

"No, but it goes really fast."

"But not upside down?"

"No."

"Okay, then. I want to ride."

She clasps Jeff's hand, holding him close as a lover as they make their way up the platform. With each step, her foot hovers in the air, searching for treacheries in the ground beneath her. Jeff holds on to the thick flesh of her waist and eases her onto the bench.

The ride begins, and Jeff watches the blind woman, ready to give word to stop the boat if she begins to panic, but she doesn't. The man beside her roars in terror when the boat goes weightless at the limit of its swing. But the blind woman smiles as though she's just recalled the answer to a question that had been worrying her for a long time. The ride ends, and Jeff goes to her and helps her down the platform. She is warm against him and cannot stop laughing. "Thank you, thanks very much," she says, and Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.

These stories are not especially long, but they're stripped of aimless or misleading detail and roomy enough to accommodate quite a lot of incident and characters and unexpected turns -- roomy enough, also, for the reader to move around inside them, idling here and there to observe their contents from different angles. And Tower gives us plenty to observe; he respects his characters and allows them to be intelligent and highly complex.

An exception to this, in certain interesting ways, is the title story, a nervy little parable about, let us say, short-sightedness and irrationality. Harald, the sweet-natured Viking who narrates the story, recounts a naval sortie under the leadership of the bellicose and sadistic Djarf Fairhair in response to the "dragons and crop blights" which -- as everyone knows! -- have been sent across the sea by a powerful monk, Naddod, on Lindisfarne, "whose people we'd troubled on a pillage-and- consternation tour through Northumbria after Corn Harvesting Month last fall."

Harald tells us he'd prefer to stay home:

Not that I was all that averse to a job myself, speaking in the abstract, but I was needing more sweet time with Pila. I cared more for that girl than even she probably knew, and I was hoping to get in some thorough lovemaking before the Haycutting Month was under way and see if I couldn't make us a little monkey.

Harald's buddy, Gnut, who has been desperately lonely since the death of his wife, and who loves boats, has no reason not to want to go, but nonetheless needs to pad his enthusiasm for the voyage with a rationale:

Gnut's wool coat was stiff with filth and his long hair so heavy and unclean that even the raw wind was having a hard time getting it to move. He had a good crust of snot going in his mustache, not a pleasant thing to look at, but then, he had no one around to find it disagreeable. He tore a spring of heather from the ground and chewed at its sweet roots.

"Djarf get at you yet?" he asked.

"No, not yet, but I'm not worried he'll forget."

He took the sprig from his teeth and briefly jammed it into his ear before tossing it away. "You gonna go?"

"Not until I hear the particulars, I won't."

"You can bet I'm going. A hydra flew in last night and ran off Rolf Hierdal's sheep. We can't be putting up with this shit. It comes down to pride, is what it comes down to."

"Hell, Gnut, when'd you get to be such a gung-ho motherfucker? I don't recall you being so proud and thin-skinned before Astrud went off to her good place. Anyhow, Lindisfarne is probably sacked-out already. If you don't recall, we pillaged the tar out of those people on the last swing through, and I doubt they've come up with much in the meantime to justify a trip."

But eventually, when Djarf shows up, grinning at the door, Harald -- predictably -- signs on:

Sure, I could have told him thanks anyway, but once you back down from one job, you're lucky if they'll even let you put in for a flat-fee trade escort. I had to think long-term, me and Pila, and any little jits we might produce.

Initially, the story might seem like a stunt, or, because of its simple, transparently allegorical conceit and slick glaze of pop culture, depthlessly jokey. But long before one reaches the story's terrifying conclusion, the preposterous, video-game-like violence, the mindlessly affable clichés and macho sentimentality, the cartoonish account of unremitting territorial aggression, and the impenetrable and rather suffocating veneer of readily available commercial imagery reminiscent of Disney and Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter remind us painfully how very amenable to propaganda our particular world is and how great is the effort required at any time to see through propaganda into the reality of one's life.

I've had occasion to notice that often, with collections of stories, it is generally agreed that story X is clearly the best or story Y is clearly the worst. And while there's unanimity on that point, there's very little agreement about which story is X and which story is Y. So I'll restrain myself from hazarding a pointless comparative evaluation and content myself with saying that the story that moved me most powerfully and engaged me most fully of these nine was "Executors of Important Energies," a sparkling and intricate chamber piece whose players are the narrator, the narrator's complicated and difficult father who is being engulfed by dementia, the father's younger, fading, entrapped wife, and a chess hustler.

The story is set on one evening, mostly in Manhattan's Washington Square Park and at a nearby restaurant, and the range and subtlety of emotional tonalities are stunning. It's also a story of great poise -- the rapidly interacting ensemble of fascinating characters seems exactly balanced, and every detail seems just right.

Tower has a wonderful feel for the integrity of a story, what it needs to consist of. The stories here are controlled, powerful dynamisms, and they live on after one has put the book down, and expand in one's mind, and keep on expanding.

Deborah Eisenberg is the author of four collections of short stories and a play. She is the winner of the 2000 Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers' Award, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and five O. Henry Awards. She lives in New York City.


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