Friday March 13th, 2009

Small Mercies in Stumbling Worlds

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned: Stories by Wells Tower
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $24.00

The skiff sat low in the water under the weight of our haul. The most substantial ballast of our crew, I sat in the stern and ran the kicker so the bow wouldn’t swamp…. We puttered out, the potent blue gasoline vapor bubbling up from the propeller. Clearing the shallows, I opened the throttle, and the craft bullied its way through the low swells, a fat white fluke churning up behind us.

That passage comes from “Retreat,” one of the stories in Wells Tower’s generally inventive and surprising debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. “Retreat” recounts the visit of one brother, Stephen Lattimore, a near penniless music teacher of the mentally disabled, to another, Matthew, a formerly somewhat successful but also deceitful and self-deceiving thrice-married real-estate guy now in debt who has just bought a mountain and built a cabin on it in Maine. In the passage quoted above, the brothers are in a skiff coming back from hunting with George Tabbard, Matthew’s neighbor, who built the cabin for Matthew but then proceeded to spoil it by adding pointless and unsightly gewgaws and wood filigree to the otherwise plain building. There is a shot-dead moose in the boat.

everythingravagedSo here is my question about this whole book, based on this passage: Is the muscular prose cited above — an almost chewable kind of diction that the young Tower produces throughout this volume — plain and simple and  handsome, a little like the voice of Tobias Wolff, or is it at heart a kind of Tabbardian filigree in monosyllables’ clothing? To my eye, it seems usually the former, I’m glad to say: earned and natural. But it does veer into apparent self-consciousness from time to time — as I think it does in that boat, with “puttered,” “potent,” “propellers,” “shallows,” “throttled,” and “bullied”: all that alliteration and all those double-consananted fellows packed into two sentences.

With his carefully made language, Tower may be trying to redeem the fallen—or at least stumbling — worlds he creates in these stories. In “The Brown Coast,” Bob Monroe is fixing up his uncle’s cabin near the ocean. Bob has fallen out with his wife after she discerns a petite footprint, not hers, on the windshield of their car. He decides to try to rehabilitate an aquarium that he finds in the shack, and in this task he has the help of neighbors, Claire and Derrick (who is given to saying “God fuck a milk cow” and other colorful locutions of that nature). Bob nobly resists the advances of Claire, one drunken night, but that virtuousness doesn’t keep him from inadvertently killing off the fish in the refurbished tank by allowing a lethal sea slug to be placed in their midst.

That slug represents all the wrenches thrown by fate or self-destructiveness into the lives and hopes of Tower’s characters — all the chaotic troubles upon which he means to confer order by the precision of his language and his unsentimental sympathy. Forget fate — it’s almost always self-destructiveness. One guy is driving his old girlfriend’s new boyfriend home — yes, it’s odd; you have to read the story — stops at a bar, and gets into an awful, displaced-rage fight with a stranger. A young girl gets jealous of her cousin’s flirting with a boy she knows during a walk in the woods and puts herself at risk by taking up with a stranger sunning himself near a stream. A lot of the narrative turns in these stories take place with anger and/or jealousy at the wheel.

And it is these dark, primal impulses that Tower appears to want to bring to artistic heel with his often impressively evocative language. From “Wild America,” of that girl who is jealous of her cousin: “Maya glanced at the brass pocket watch she was affecting these days.” Of a boy who is shirking chores walking to get the mail, from “Leopard”: “The earth under your toes is plush with mole tunnels.” (Too bad about that second-person device, however.) Of a blind woman getting on a carnival ride in “On the Show”: “Her foot hovers in the air, searching for treacheries in the ground beneath her.”

These are mostly marginal lives. They include a young boy abused by a pederast at a circus (“On the Show”) and a hapless inventor of failed coffeemakers who has to take care of his increasingly demented but formerly chess-expert father for a few days, in “Executors of Important Energies.” (I would have made this the title of the book, because the irony of the actual title is gettable only retroactively.) But the narratives do offer small mercies to some of their characters — more like reliefs than rewards. The boy will probably be OK. The girl with the sketchy sunbather will probably be OK. The blind woman enjoys the circus ride. And so on. It’s as if the pieces taken together were saying, “Life is very hard and we almost always make it harder for ourselves, so take the worst not happening as a positive pleasure.”

One story here, “Door in Your Eye,” offers something like actual sunshine rather than merely fewer clouds. It’s about a crippled older man who goes to stay with his daughter, suspects the woman across the street (upon whom he keeps watch because he has nothing much else to do) is a prostitute, and then finds out she is only a drug dealer, and a most frank, interesting, and decent one at that. The final story, the title story, is about violent Vikings who go on a raid four or five hundred years ago to an already ravaged place and ravage it some more. Because it is the least typical entry in the collection, one would guess that it carries some kind of important summary freight. Damned if I can figure out what it is, though there is the gentlest touch of amelioration at the end, with the abduction of a one-armed girl.

I often distrust this kind of highly fictive and almost exhibitionistic imagination. Or at least it’s fictive-seeming; did the author in fact ever put a sea slug into an aquarium, shoot a moose, or marry a one-armed woman? Its brain waves sometimes drown out the beating of a heart. On the other hand, I also don’t like an obviously autobiographical pie sliced up into ten or eleven works of short “fiction.” Writers of story collections, including me, are sort of damned if they do make things up, damned if they don’t. This is the reason I admire Tobias Wolff and William Trevor and V. S. Pritchett and Ann Cummins and Alice Munro so greatly — I can’t really tell half the time. But putting aesthetic quibbles aside, the stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are both entertaining and of a philosophical piece, and are mostly very good.  And there are always those (usually wonderful) bursts of language: “A stray cat I used to like would come around to sulk in the corn.” “I stayed inside, slathering auburn Minwax on sheets of bead-board wainscot.” “I shot the head off a bony goose at point-blank range.”

Daniel Menaker, a longtime editor at The New Yorker and Random House (where he served as Executive Editor-in-Chief), is the author of two story collections and a novel, The Treatment. His new book, A Good Talk, about conversation, will be published next year.