Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is one of the best collections of short stories that I have read in a long time. His unsentimental, often brutal yet always brilliant stories lay bare the lives of ordinary people, all trying to do the right thing is a world of alienation and hopelessness. Written with a vividness, humour and sharp wit that bring the reader immediately to the heart of the protagonist’s experience, these stories turn on moments of quiet self-realisation or a creeping sense of unexpected dread.
Tower is drawn to the underbelly of society – those on the edge, in trouble or winging it. Hs stories aren’t restricted to one class, age or geography yet eight of the nine tales are either narrated by or feature a frustrated male – from a lonely 11-year-old boy who goes to ridiculous lengths to get his mother’s attention to a wheelchair-using man in his eighties who spies on a neighbour he believes to be a prostitute.
The stunning title story features droll narration by Harald, a marauding Viking with a misplaced sensitivity, who, following an attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne, finds himself exhausted with his rape-and-pillage lifestyle.
I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated these people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you’ve done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.
This sense of vulnerable masculinity and a fear of love pervades the collection. The protagonist of ‘The Brown Coast’ is staying at his Uncle’s cabin after being thrown out by his wife and his attempts to win her back go as badly as his efforts to create an aquarium out of found fish. In ‘Retreat’, a real-estate developer whose career is in free-fall tries to bond with his estranged brother over a hunting trip, while in ‘Down Through the Valley, a man picks up his daughter and ex-wife’s lover from an ashram retreat in an attempt to get back in his wife’s good books, only to mess everything up by becoming involved in a parking lot fight.
Like Harald, the Viking, Tower’s characters are men who love their families, but their attempts to show it always have a way of backfiring. These are men at odds with the world and Tower perfectly captures both their pain and their destructiveness.
The highlight of the collection – ‘On the Show’ – is set in a squalid fairground and features child abduction, possible romance, accidental death and drug deals and packs more into its brief pages than many novels I’ve read.
Throughout the collection, Tower’s language sings, always inventive, skittish and bursting with exuberance. These stories are full of sharp asides and witty detail: at once grotesque and human.
The waitress went by, and the boy called out to her. “Hey, Jenny. Your tits look happy tonight.”
“Yeah, well they’re crying on the inside,” she told him over her shoulder.
Tower has an easy brilliance to his writing which makes his stories accessible and his characters endearing, despite their obvious flaws and self-defeating natures. His stories often feel like they could take one of two paths, either towards happiness or towards pain and the enjoyment is found in letting him lead the way. His characters all have their problems, and what they have in common is that they know what the problems are; they are just struggling to find a way to solve them.
Tower is not delivering judgement; rather he is shining a light on the small lives, the hard and hopeless lives and using language to give their desperation a significance. There is a real poetry to his writing, despite, or perhaps because of the subject matter. The sophisticated use of language gives the stories a metaphorical significance, which is impossible to resist.
If you are tempted to give Wells Tower a try, you can read the fantastic title story, ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’ on the Granta website here.
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20 Books of Summer: 1/20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!