I love short stories, full stop. Their language needs to be so particular and intense, and when it’s right, it’s humbling and bracing all at the same time. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned ultimately tells readers more through its restraint than other writing can through a surfeit of expression. I can tell that this book is going to be my American short story hobby horse for 2009 the way Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More than You was in 2007. Both debut collections are powerful and startlingly transformative expeditions into the human condition.
Tower’s protagonists are people who get caught like prickles in the fabric of life, unintentionally repelling and attaching to various trajectories. Just as July’s book could have been subtitled ‘Screwed-up Women on Their Own’, Tower’s trawler has picked up quite a few men stranded by the tides of twenty-first century whatever. In the collection’s first story, ‘The Brown Tower’, Bob Munroe finds himself alone in his uncle Randall’s beach house after having been coerced into doing some repairs. Following a joyless two-week affair with a lonely woman following the death of his father shortly before, Bob’s wife has thrown him out of the house:
Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants. He’d come in late, his spine throbbing from the bus ride down, and he had stretched out on the floor with a late dinner of two bricks of saltines. Now cracker bits were all over him – under his bare chest, stuck in the sweaty creases of his elbows and his neck, and the biggest and worst of them he could feel lodged deep into his buttock crack like a flint arrowhead somebody had shot in there.
It’s direct, creative writing that stops just short of being cute. With all of this skill at his command, Tower is able to take life’s time-honoured crevices — post-separation chaos, slow descent into dementia, lonely young life in a small town — and portray them through a new vocabulary of images and actions. Vicissitudes we thought we knew so well, whether through others’ writing or our own roiling experience, take on this new, oblique language with a kind of natural surprise, as if grateful for the new lease of life. It’s not tricky or bravura writing — it’s mimetic but angular, like what a camera might capture at the right moment if it followed the right person.
I suppose that marshals the question: right time and place for what? Most of the big-ticket events happen off-page in Everything Ravaged: the divorces are already done, the father has already departed, the teenaged girl is already uglier and more alone than her beautiful cousin, the runaway has already taken a chunk out of his stepfather’s thigh with his teeth. These things pass into the reader’s knowledge in a simple way, and we then take a ride through a middle passage where possible but heightened components of daily life take hold. Bob Munroe, above, of the saltines, takes a walk down to the beach where he spies a gorgeously blue and yellow fish swimming slowly around in a rockpool, where it’s been trapped since high tide. It’s hungry because there’s nothing to eat; to trap it, Munroe bends over and catches its attention with a slow glob of spit. He’s fishing with nothing, with spit that is even less than excrement, but he catches the fish and places it in an aquarium at home, the first in a collection of wondrous marine life. Everything Ravaged contains this and a thousand other emotionless triumphs and ebbs.
All this, though, is like the timely march of the actor towards the stage. From this heightened catalogue of quotidian effects, a kind of acceleration takes place, an impetus for inertia to become centrifugal force; and Tower specialises in a kind of aborted flourish where the protagonist’s bewilderment and instability is revealed in something small, Freudian, or true. I like this kind of ending much better than I like Nabokov’s plosive cadenzas. Tower doesn’t aspire to conjure the closure we never actually get. It’s drama without the release of catharsis; it’s release for greater intake, whether for education or prostration.
None of the previous would seem to admit to any humour, but Everything Ravaged is hilarious, too. Munroe’s neighbour down at the beach is the local vet, Derrick, who considers ‘the tiniest jean shorts Bob had ever seen’ comfortable daywear. You wait the entire collection for the title story ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’, bristling with the promise of that title’s poetic and patterned cadence, and its marauding Vikings, with their snot-crusted moustaches, potato wine and monk chasing, are therefore almost unwelcome. But these fellows are charming guys the likes of which you could find down at the pub. When Gnut, of the moustache, falls in love with a one-armed seamstress, his friend Harald asks for clarification: ‘This a voluntary thing, or an abduction-type deal?’
My only complaint about this book is the stock it’s printed on: it’s that awful crap that scritches when the pages rub together the wrong way. It makes my teeth want to vomit. See, though, everything else about this book is good.