I am going to come back to the “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” stories again. They are rugged. The characters are vivid. Better yet, their work and struggles jump from the page. There’s grit by the truckload. I’m not sure what grit is, but I know when it when I read it. Maybe it’s a sensation that I’m reading about something from the real world, not free-floating in a writer’s version of the real world. I cared quickly about each character in “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” (except for the Viking dude). I cared for the man struggling with his brother in “Retreat,” the teenage girl struggling in “Wild America,” the 11-year-old boy struggling in “Leopard,” the grown-up “ex” struggling in “Down In The Valley.” Pick a favorite? I don’t know. Okay, “Wild America.” Okay, no “Down In The Valley.”
Sayys Wells Tower (from bookslut.com): “The person I try hardest to please is the cranky, spiteful critic in my head who keeps up an incessant caterwauling of invective and unhelpful fault finding. If I write something that quiets that guy down, I can usually feel confident that it’s not completely awful. But I’m definitely not interested in consumer references or things that only exist in the present time; that kind of thing always turns my stomach if I think about doing it. I’m not a cultural critic.”
A friend handed me “Everything Ravaged.” He just handed it to me, said it was good. I’d say it’s pretty close to terrific. Tower’s writing is relaxed. It is not showy or over the top. I have a low tolerance for writers who scream “look at me, check these verbs and clever turns of phrase.” The stories are earnest and heartfelt. Wordsmithing handstands down the block? Not Wells Tower. Yes, there are occasional flashes of nifty imagery but it’s within bounds, within the framework of the story.
From Down In The Valley: “I looked in the rearview. Barry had his good foot propped on the back of Marie’s seat. His pants were hiked up, showing a shin about as big around as a deer’s leg, and covered so thickly in coarse black hair you could have hung a toothpick in it.”
From Wild in America: “Not far from the bluff, she paused to look at the shirtless man lying out on the stone island. He had his radio going and his eyes closed, as glad in the sun as a cat. She watched him put a green beer bottle to his lips, drain it, and set it in the creek. The bottle bobbed through the eddy and lodged downstream in a wad of beige foam. Then he felt for another in a crowd of bottles clanking in a pool near his hand, opened it, and tipped some of it back, all without opening his eyes. You had to appreciate somebody who all he needed was a hot stone, beer, and a cheap radio to have a good time.”
From Retreat: “I woke a little after three, thirsty as a poisoned rat, but I lay paralyzed in superstition that staggering to the sink would banish sleep for good.”
The amount of information Tower imparts in a few short brush strokes is remarkable. For the most part, the characters are on the down-and-out side but Tower finds their heart in each and every case. From bookslut.com, Wells Tower: :I have heard it from a few quarters that the book’s characters are exceptionally ugly or cruel, which I find a little surprising. I think they’re all fairly tender people who want the usual things — tenderness, human connection, safe harbor — but who cannot help vexing themselves.”
The title piece is a curveball about Vikings pillaging and worse. Coming last in the volume, it made me reflect back on all the brutality in our own world and how we are capable of quickly rushing to judgment. Does anyone know why this story is in this collection? There must be a reason. Wells? Please explain.
If you enjoy short stories as the occasional palate cleanser to a deep novel, the nine pieces in “Everything Ravaged” might be just what you need.
Wells Tower says writers should “bring some light to things.” Tower has all the wattage you could ask for—and more.