Modern stories, old-time craft
In the title story of his debut collection, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” Wells Tower uses contemporary American idiom to tell the story of a Viking having second thoughts about his career as a plunderer and pillager.
We’ve seen reluctant detectives, hitmen and superheroes but never a foot-dragging sacker of cities. It’s a weirdly empathetic and altogether unforgettable tale, but once you get past the absurdity of characters with names like Naddod the Norwegian Monk and Djarf Fairhair talking like teenagers around a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the story is fairly conventional: a young man in love must choose between the safety of the life he knows -- the perils of long sea voyages and raiding villages notwithstanding -- and the unknown terrors of raising a family.
For all the literary pyrotechnics on display in this curious narrative, the rest of the stories are surprisingly straightforward. In fact, Tower’s skill at things like exposition and characterization mark him as almost old-fashioned.
The story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” was first published in the New York literary magazine Fence way back in 2002. The story won the Pushcart Prize and was anthologized in “The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories” in 2004. In other words, this fresh new voice in American fiction is neither fresh nor new; and that’s precisely what makes the arrival of this incredible talent so compelling.
Tower’s subject? He doesn’t have one. He adeptly tackles all manner of familial conflicts: father vs. son, brother vs. brother, husband vs. wife, boy vs. stepfather, in other words, the world. (It must be said that all but one of the nine stories in the collection are told from the point of view of male protagonists.) The stories are set in locales scattered across the country, yet Tower displays the authority of a regional writer:
“He crossed the cockeyed patio. Tiny lizards scattered from his path. He followed the sound of waves to the end of the yard, through a stand of pine trees, limbless and spectral. He stepped from the pines onto a road paved with oyster shells whose brightness in the morning light made his eyes clench up.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone, much less a literary-minded fellow, paying such loving attention to coastal Florida, but the details are conjured up so thoroughly one can almost hear the skinks scurrying for cover in the understory.
Tower brings his keen powers of observation to bear on the human form as well. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a hustler’s broken front tooth is described as “a tiny gray guillotine.” A tall girl with too much makeup on in “Down Through the Valley” is “a bleached giraffe in tight jeans.”
It sometimes feels as if there’s nothing Tower can’t render in arresting fashion. Near the end of “Retreat,” a hunter who has killed a moose and cut out the short ribs and tenderloin characterizes the latter as “a tapered log of flesh that looked like a peeled boa constrictor.” Tower’s prose is a welcome reminder that the first job of the fiction writer is to introduce the reader to worlds both new and familiar in ways they wouldn’t have arrived at on their own.
In the collection’s finest story, “On the Show,” Tower writes with spellbinding virtuosity. Beginning with the portentous “Now it’s dark,” the story proceeds with the sun setting on a traveling carnival show. (Readers who have sworn off stories set in zoos and amusement parks will be happy to know that we’re not in George Saunders’ counterfactual America; sometimes a carnival is just a carnival.)
The sky “glows hyena brown” as egrets take flight over a drainage canal. A lizard, 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.”
The surface of the rusting tank prompts the lizard into changing colors, but it’s a trick. “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.” This cinematic opening, full of garish colors and things not quite what they seem, introduces an unputdownable whodunit that centers on the molestation of a young boy.
As to why Tower had to wait so many years for his debut is anyone’s guess, but one suspects we’ll be hearing his name -- which invokes prose that is both soaring and deep -- for a long time to come.