BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Wells Tower
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned grabbed me by the nuts in the very first paragraph of the first story, “Brown Coast,” as Bob Munroe wakes up covered in Saltines:
Cracker bits were all over him—under his bare chest, stuck in the sweaty creases of his elbows and 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.
To escape from a busted marriage and a lost job, Munroe holes up in his uncle’s beach house in an unnamed, rinky-dink town. Here he accidentally and grudgingly makes friends with Derrick, the local vet (“Gotta take a ride over the bridge,” he said. “Need to go pull something out of a horse’s pussy”). Derrick’s wife, Claire, is so fetching that her beauty “made [Bob’s] throat itch,” and Tower makes it clear that Bob and Claire will eventually exchange fluids.
Meanwhile, back at home, Bob’s wife is spending an awful lot of time with Bob’s uncle, the man who suggested the beach house for Bob’s getaway.
In a vain effort to create something beautiful out of this mess, Bob begins filling a massive fish tank with colorful creatures he pulls from the sea, and for awhile, it works. Bob gets his head together enough to decide that he will go back home and make up with his wife. But then Claire drops a sea cucumber into the fish tank. When Bob wakes the next morning (“Claire was snoring hard”), he finds all of the fish dead.
Claire tells him that they’ll find new fish, “Way better stuff than even what you had” … which is Tower’s ingenious way of letting the reader know that Bob will never reunite with his family.
I know I’m spending a lot of time on this one story, but it’s a dynamite story (Paris Review thought so, too), and made me really want to read the rest.
The next piece, “Retreat,” has a similar protagonist with a similar voice.
The next piece, “Executor of Important Energies,” has a similar protagonist with a similar voice.
The next piece, “Down Through the Valley,” …
And so on. They’re entertaining stories, nearly every one of them. Taken alone, they’re each delightful. But put together, one after another after another, they begin to blend together into one long piece. (Until the last two, which I’ll get to).
Which is fine. Again, they’re fun to read, and Tower has a gift for dialogue. “Executors of Important Energies” opens with Burt getting a late-night call from his lonely, sex-deprived stepmother:
“Do you ever think about all the ones who you didn’t let them have you? I wish I could take a do-over on all of them, even the nastiest. Even the worst. Are you there?”
“Yes, “I said. “I’m just not sure what you want me to do with this information.”
“Oh, forget it,” she said. “I just don’t feel very desirable is all.”
I told her plenty of people desired her. “Well, nobody desires me to my face,” she said.
“What time is it?”
“Not bad. Like three here.”
Dialogue like this was enough to keep me reading through these first seven pieces. The last two? Well, that’s a whole different story.
Remember those old SAT math questions, the ones where you have to deduce the pattern? The stories in this collection go: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, x, y.
x is the eighth piece, “On the Show.” Instead of 128, though, this one follows no pattern whatsoever. A pedophile sneaks a child into a Port-A-John. A young man has a fistfight with his stepfather and runs away to join a traveling fair. A man ducks and dodges his way through a Scrambler-type ride to pick up the loose change that falls from the pockets of riders. A baseball team leaves town to hold spring training in New Mexico instead. It’s a bizarre piece, a misstep with a sketchy rotating point of view. Harper’s saw fit to publish it, though. Makes me wonder who’s in charge over there.
The ninth and final story, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, also steps out of the pattern set by the first seven, but this one reads much better than “On the Show.” It follows a marauding band of Vikings (yes, Vikings—some of them with consciences) who cross the North Sea, mostly out of boredom, to attack a settlement it had already destroyed the prior autumn:
On the far hill, I could make out the silhouette of the monastery, which still lacked a roof from when we’d burned it last. It was a lovely place, and I hoped there would still be something left to enjoy after we got off the ship and wrecked it up.
The dialogue in this story is brilliant. One man doesn’t want to go crusading, “Not until I hear the particulars.” During the attack, while most of the Vikings are off raping and burning and cutting off heads, a splinter group of middle-aged Vikings comes across “an old dried-up farmer”:
He squinted at my face. “Something wrong?” I asked him.
“Just thought I recognized you is all.”
“Could be. I was through here last fall.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “Now that was a hot one.”
And a bit later:
“So what are you doing, any looting?”
“Why? You got anything to loot?”
“Me? Oh, no. Got a decent cookstove, but I can’t see you toting that back on the ship.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a coin hoard or anything buried out back?”
“Jeezum crow, I wish I did have. Coin hoard, I’d really turn things around for myself.”
A common criticism of story collections is that they are “uneven.” Excepting these last two pieces, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is just the opposite, a bit too even. Wells Tower is a good writer. He will probably soon be a very good writer. But in order for him to become a great writer, he’ll need to find some versatility.
I’m pretty sure he will.
Similar books: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson are the first collections that come to mind. Tower also shows shades of Robert Stone, although his writing is much less erudite. Bear and His Daughter is a good one by Stone, or check out Nico’s review of Stone’s recent release, Fun With Problems, a book I haven’t gotten my grubby little hands on yet.