The collection is indeed reminiscent of Denis Johnson's collection, in its brevity, directness, and wild energy; it also evokes Raymond Carver, for its convincing portrayals of working-class angst. It's a guy book, for sure--that is, a book that is masculine in tone, not a book that women won't like--with flawed male protagonists brooding over their failures and indulging their eccentricities. But it eschews the trappings of simplistic self-destruction narratives and chooses instead to wallow in the weirdness of life. Characters are strange, very strange, but very convincingly strange--never do you feel you're reading something that's quirky for quirkiness's sake. The Wacky is nowhere in evidence.
Here's a passage from "Down Through the Valley," a story in which a man is convinced by his ex-wife to drive their daughter and her injured current boyfriend back to town from the new age retreat where he hurt himself. Barry is some kind of earthy herbal therapist.
I asked a lot of people about Barry when Jane got mixed up with him. I knew a lady who'd legged down with him one time. She said the weird stink of him had been a problem, which I was pleased to hear. She also said that he had a huge banana, that he did breathing exercises beforehand, and that afterwards he'd gone in the kitchen and whipped up a big beet salad.
You've got to love the word choices here--"lady," "legged down," "the weird stink of him," "banana"--and the way the beet salad serves as a kind of subtle exclamation point at the end of the paragraph. Tower's language is just great--highly original, seemingly effortless.
There are many standout stories here, but people seem to talk the most about the title piece (also the last in the book), which takes the easy, workingman's poetry of the other stories and applies it to what appear to be Viking marauders. You'd think the result would come off as Donald Barthleme lite, but instead it's extremely fitting, very funny, and deeply disturbing. A neat trick to top off a winning collection.
Am I an asshole to hope he's writing a novel? I really do, though I will happily accept more stories.