Sunday, September 13, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned - Wells Tower

To believe the hype, or not to believe the hype? That is the question all of us bloggers face when reviewing a new book or album or movie that carries an enormous buzz. The Vampire Weekend debut album comes to mind. I think it is fair to say that Wells Tower's debut collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the literary equivalent to that piece of cultural history from 18 months ago. Except that, in the case of the former, I disagreed with the general consensus, and in this case, I agree with it. The hype is deserved; Wells Tower will be here to stay for a while.

I saw him speak at a panel discussion entitled "Short and Sweet" at the Printer's Row Lit Fest this year. He was definitely one of the biggest celebrities in attendance this year, though he has only recently become a known name. I think he is about 36 years old. Apparently he went to college and is friends with one of the guys in Les Savy Fav. He used to write for the Washington Post, or something? Then, he got his MFA from Columbia University (like the author posted about previously, whom he may surpass in fame in the coming years) and he published stories in all the right places (The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper's, McSweeney's) and here finally is his collection. I have to say it is the best short story collection I have read since Richard Lange's Dead Boys, and it is hard to say which is better. Lange's is dear to my heart because of its L.A.-centricity, but Tower's seems to cover more human territory. Not that all of Lange's protagonists are the same (as at least one review, in the San Francisco Chronicle, assumed, which I found weird) but they do all seem genetically, if not socio-economically, similar. Tower's protagonists are of a much wider variety, and because of this, his book appeals to the least common denominator (or would greatest common factor be a more appropriate mathematical term?). I don't think this book will make Oprah's Book Club, nor do I think Tower would want to become a part of that institution. I think this book lacks a specific "issue" focus that Oprah's books always seem to project. Nevertheless, I still can't help but think of this as an Oprah-style-book because it's something that is practically impossible to denounce or discount. Uniformally positive reviews are the rule here.

I did read it very quickly, and I enjoyed it very much. As much as I would like to be cool and slam it and affect the pose of a sophisticate hipster who is above consuming anything that has generated a "buzz," it would be a mistake. I got it out of the library on Tuesday and finished reading it on Friday. Story-by-story analysis? Alright, but don't expect too many quotes. Tower may have established himself as one of the best young writers working today with this volume, but he is nothing compared to Mann--not yet, at least.

"The Brown Coast" opens up the collection with one of the few third-person perspectives it contains. It is about a guy (Bob) who has been sent to make some repairs on the summer home of his uncle (Randy) in Florida, or somewhere. He captures some fish and puts them in an aquarium. He makes friends with his neighbors and goes skinny-dipping with them. He is separated from his wife but wants to get back together with her. Later, there is a destructive act, and it is only in this kind of denouement that Tower's stories seem to inhabit thematically similar territory. This story did remind me of Richard Lange.

As did the next one, "Retreat," which is about two brothers--one a real estate entrepreneur and the other a musical therapist. One brother has recently bought a mountain with a cabin on it, and has invited the other one over for a weekend of bonding. They go hunting with another man, bag some serious game, and then later, something destructive happens. This story was probably better than the first one.

"Executors of Important Energies" is about a kid who patents crazy inventions and makes a pretty good living off it (which made me think of "Shark Tank") whose father is starting to succumb to Alzheimer's, or some variant of it. His father is a chess guru and lawyer, and married to a much younger woman. The kid lives in the West Village, and meets his father in Washington Square Park, where he is taking on another hustler in a game. They befriend this person and take him out to dinner. This is a very good story but arguably not as good as the second one.

"Down Through the Valley" is about a recently divorced guy who has to pick up his daughter and his wife's new lover, a spiritual guru, from some new age camp and drive them home, because of an injury. It's complicated to explain. They stop at a roadside bar to get some dinner, and a fight breaks out. This story does have some nice moments, potentially even great moments, but is one of the less memorable of the collection for some reason.

With "Leopard," the collection veers into new territory, describing the miserable existence of an 11-year-old boy who fakes being sick to avoid going to school because his classmates are so mean to him, only to be stuck at home with a seemingly worse stepfather. He is asked to get the mail, which is no small task at their house, and he fakes fainting on the walk back. In the mailbox was a flyer asking for help to find a lost pet leopard. A cop stops by and tries to help. The ending is really messed up. This was definitely a highlight, but still slight in comparison with what is to come.

"Door in Your Eye" is about an 83-year-old man who has moved in with his daughter and been told by her that a woman across the street from their apartment is a whore. This story is hilarious and sweet and while also slight, another highlight in the collection.

"Wild America" signals the beginning of the end, the final trilogy of stories that I think should be considered the strongest overall part of the collection. If "Wild America" is not the longest story, it is the second longest. It is about one day in the life of Jacey, who is hanging out with her cousin Maya, and a boy named Leander. All are in high school. Maya is a model and aspiring ballet dancer who smokes and Jacey is plump, athletic, and might one day consider a future in pharmacy. Leander is a boy that Jacey necked with once in a planetarium, and now has been invited to come over and watch Jaws. A trip to a convenience store with Maya veers off into the forest for a pot smoking excursion, which ends in Jacey flipping out and turning her attentions towards an older man who is sunbathing on a rock in a creek nearby. This is a really weird story and I didn't think I was going to like it at first but is just paced very well.

"On the Show" is probably the best story in the collection. It is about a group of people brought together by a carnival and a despicable act in a portable toilet. It is something of a mystery story, a whodunit that seems almost secondary to the entertaining description of what it is like to be a carny. It may be longer than "Wild America," or vice versa, but these are the two longest stories, and this is definitely the more elegantly composed of the two. It is almost like a short novella, and it could have gone on indefinitely, it seems, following any of the characters. But as it stands, the length is perfect, the material is pure page-turner, and the characters are wonderfully evoked.

"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" is the notorious title story that I feel like most people consider the single highlight of the collection. It could also be known as the story about Vikings. It does end the collection on a great note, a lighter note for sure. After all of Tower's deep and often unsettling observations on contemporary America comes a piece of historical fiction that is absurd, depraved, and just kind of silly, if harmless. It's not especially long, but it is not the slightest of the lot either. It is probably the most comic of all stories but it also contains the most grotesque imagery. One could easily be cynical about this story, or what it represents (which is open to debate), but I don't think it's meant to be taken all that seriously. Take an exchange between the two main characters, on their voyage to the land they are set to pillage, as an example:

"We had less light in the evenings out here than at home, and it was a little easier sleeping in the open boat without an all-night sun. Gnut and I slept where we rowed, working around each other to get comfy on the bench. I woke up once in the middle of the night and found Gnut dead asleep, muttering and slobbering and holding me in a rough embrace. I tried to peel him off, but he was large, and his hard arms stayed on me tight as if they'd grown there. I poked him and yelled at him, but the big man would not be roused, so I just tried to work up a little slack to where he wasn't hurting my ribs, and I drifted back to sleep.
Later, I told him what had happened. 'That's a lot of horseshit,' he said, his broad face going red.
'I wish it was,' I said, 'But I've got bruises I could show you. Hey, if I ever come around asking to be your sweetheart, do me a favor and remind me about last night.'
He was all upset. 'Go to hell, Harald. You're not funny. Nobody thinks you're funny.'
'I'm sorry,' I said, 'Guess you haven't had a whole lot of practice lately having a body beside you at night.'
He rested on the oar a second. 'So what if I haven't.'" (224-225)

At the "Short and Sweet" panel, Wells Tower mentioned that he was at work on a novel. Whatever it is, it will probably be worth reading. Maybe it will not be as good as this collection, but he seems to know what he is doing, and I would put odds that his star will only continue to grow. Whatever he releases, I'll be paying attention.

Ed: It is perhaps worth noting that Oprah released her newest book club selection--a collection of short stories titled Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan--also a debut collection. True to form, it is more issue-centric than Tower's collection, and it will probably appeal to Oprah's audience and Akpan will now become more famous. This is only worth noting because it was funny that I mentioned her book club and that only a few days later, she picked her next book, a short story collection. I would like to think that Oprah is a reader of this blog (I would love to become her friend) but I highly doubt that.

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