Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower ****

This book was the rage two or three years ago. Not being in an MFA program, however, I was out of the loop. I heard about it from a couple of people who were in an MFA program. I was at the beach. They had the book. I read it--or part of it, two stories. Good stuff. But I didn't run out immediately and buy it or read it. Now I have read it.

What can be said? Tower has a way with words--and with characters. He also writes in a way that is in some respects maddening. By that I mean that I found the work here Faulkneresque. And by that I mean not that Tower writes in cryptic garbled-up stream-of-consciousness that demands you've read everything else Tower has written before you know who in the world these people are the narrator keeps referring to. No, I mean that I'd get to the end of the story and think, That's it? That's really the ending? In other words, many of the stories didn't seem to have definitive ends. They just drew to a close. But you know, in a way that was refreshing. Everything ventured, nothing learned.

That's not the case with two stories in the collection, one of which is my favorite and one of which probably could be used as a frame to interpret all the other pieces in the collection. My favorite was "Down through the Valley," a tale in which a man goes to visit his daughter over at his ex-wife's place; the ex-wife left him for another man, and now she needs her ex-husband to take care of their daughter and this new man for a short while. Sounds like a normal, messed-up family story. And then it gets real messed up. They go to a bar and grill. The new man, Barry, gets involved in someone else's fight, and before the tale's over, the narrator's entire life is headed in a completely new and desperate direction, one he hardly seems responsible for.

The other story is the title story. I had been told it was one of the weaker stories in the collection, and I think I would generally concur. It involves Norsemen going to pillage a town. Having just read a huge chunk of Icelandic sagas this past year, the information here seems not atypical. There's a lot of murder and carnage. What's different is that Tower puts a contemporary sensibility on it, which means we get the gory descriptions. In the end, however, the main characters come to think a bit more deeply about their way of life, the pain that they cause to others. They meet a family they tore apart a few years earlier. And yet, that doesn't stop one of the men from kidnapping the one (now one-armed) daughter that the farmer has left for himself. In the concluding remarks, the narrator acknowledges, now a provider for his own family, his fear of pillagers coming to his own village and destroying his own family. Indeed, I think of it as one of the fears I've long held with regard to having a wife and children. Just how well could I provide, and could I really offer any protection? It seems we're more often victims to whatever a perpetrator wishes to put over on us.

The other stories all have intriguing plot points and characters to dig into. "The Brown Coast" involves a man who, after his father's death, has messed up his life--losing his job and his wife--and who is now trying to rebuild, starting slowly with an aquarium he puts into his new home. "Retreat" involves two brothers who haven't, historically, gotten along so well; now adults, the older brother invites the younger to a cabin he's purchased, and the two go hunting together, while the older tries to convince the younger that the cabin land is a good investment. In "Executors of Important Energies" the narrator's stepmom wrangles a way to reunite son and father; unfortunately, the father's mind isn't all there, and it seems more likely that the stepmom is simply dumping Dad on son. In "Leopard" a kid plays hookey from school but still has to deal with the stepdad he can't stand. In "Door in Your Eye" an eighty-two-year-old dad takes up living with his daughter and succumbs to the temptation to visit the hooker who lives across the street. In "Wild America" (perhaps my second favorite in the collection) a teen-aged girl competes with her cousin for affection; each of them want a boy, it seems, only to keep the other one from having him. And each finds herself doing dangerous things with older men in order to garner attention, things she knows she'll likely regret but can't let anyone else know. "On the Show" involves traveling fair workers and customers in an ensemble story.

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