He opened the refrigerator, which was empty and breathed out a sour-thermos smell. Shrunken ice cubes lay in trays in the freezer, and Bob popped one out and stuck it in his mouth. It tasted like old laundry. He spat it into the dusty cranny between the fridge and the stove.
That passage appears at the end of the second paragraph of the first story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and it was at this point that I decided I was going to like Wells Tower's book. Sour thermos fridge. Old laundry ice cubes. That frightening no-man's-land down the side of the stove! Genius.
But I was nervous. Still on page one and already sold -- surely I was setting myself up for disappointment. Could the next 235 pages possibly follow through on the promise of the first? Would there be heart and meaning beyond the metaphors? I read on, and found that Bob -- the man who eats the old laundry ice cube -- is staying alone in his uncle's dilapidated beach house. A month before, Bob and his wife were driving together, when she "looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman's footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own, and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home."
That's when I decided I loved Wells Tower's book and continued to turn the pages, marking them up with glee. Which is not to say that the stories themselves are gleeful -- far from it. The pleasure is in Tower's language, his dead-on, completely original metaphors that render his characters and their world instantly familiar and real. He describes one character as "nearly all cheek, with small, crooked features that looked like they'd been stuck on in a hurry." Another laments for his hypothetical progeny, terrified that "by the time our little one could tie his shoes, his father would be a florid fifty-year-old who would suck the innocence and joy from his child as greedily as a desert wanderer savaging a found orange." In Executors of Important Energies, Towers describes a depressed, one-time trophy wife's house, "where all the sunlight in the place would not have been enough to run a solar calculator," and her stepson's apartment as "the architectural equivalent of a biscuit dough remnant."
Although Tower writes with the specificity and razor-sharp observations of a poet, his metaphors go down easy, coated in the sugar of a writer at ease with his craft. Not so for many new, talented, but trying-too-hard writers whose manufactured constructions still have the lingering scent of writing school exercises about them.
These are mostly stories of men -- broken, desperate, aged-out men who've cashed in all of their chips, but refuse to fold their last hand, even thought it's surely a bust. They're giving it one last go, but there is no swan song, just a sad refrain. Still, Towers steels them all with a measure of defiance, some furious, long-tamped passion that bubbles to the surface and fills them with a rage they used to know as desire.
Retreat dives into the violently contentious relationship between two grown brothers ("I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother's wrath"), one high on desperate fantasy, the other resigned to his miserable existence. Wild America, the lone story featuring two teenage girls, is ultimately about the sad-sack father who seals his daughter's awkwardness with his "uncomprehending fat-boy's smile... a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that was Jacey's right alone to keep hidden from the world." The title story, the one about Viking marauders, is the real surprise of the collection -- a strangely funny, bloody experiment that ends up being about the terrible conundrum of love, family, and the accompanying terror of responsibility: "I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself."
Some writers are simply masters of the short story, writers like Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel, whose genius blossoms from the limits of the form, much like poets. Wells Tower is not one of these; he's simply a great writer who happens to be writing great short stories right now. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned makes me hunger for his first novel.
This review was originally published in April 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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