Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

This week's blogging caesura is attributable to work and an unfortunate pedestrian incident, but we are back in action with this bouquet of praise for Wells Tower's amazing new story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I first came across Tower's fiction in The New Yorker, which published his story "Leopard." I thought it was pretty good, but not good enough to make me go scrambling for this book when it hit the shelves--indeed, in retrospect it seems to me to be the weakest in the collection. But then Ed Skoog was in town and insisted I buy the book, saying that it was the best debut in a decade, reminiscent of Jesus' Son, etc etc, and as usual, Skoog was right.

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.


ed skoog said...

Good lord, John, I just looked at the flickr photo of your bangup. It makes my own face hurt. Happy healing!

I'm glad and relieved that you enjoyed "Everything Ravaged..." because it's distinctly provocative and a reasonable person might find it too sharp.

It's sort of a guy's book, but there's a kind of Katherine Mansfield/ Jean Stafford feeling behind the crisp features of the surface.

I'm glad you draw a line between "convincingly strange" and "The Wacky," which is like the difference between witting and witty, which is all the difference in the world between valuable and worthless.

If one were Spy magazine, one could do a graph of such things.

Anonymous said...

One thing I failed to mention in the post is how darkly funny the book is...again, not Wacky, but very funny.

My face is perfectly fine, BTW...just a bit sore. It looks way worse than it feels.

Kevin said...

I read this when it came out and loved it, but agree that "Leopard," which seemed to get the most attention, was probably the weakest in the book, still very good though.

I was really impressed with the final story, the way he could take something that seemed so gimmicky and make it, in its final paragraphs, quite moving.

I remember reading, in one of the many articles written about him when this book came out, that he was at work on a novel. Which I can't wait for.

rmellis said...

The face looks way worse today, btw.

Stephen said...

That sentence you quoted hasn't been good for my own work today. No. Not good at all.

Anonymous said...

Hungry for beet salad, eh?

sjwoo said...

D'oh! John, you look like you've been in a fight! With a bicycle, I guess. Hope you are feeling better.

I had the same reaction -- read "Leopard" (incidentally, the last TNY story I'd received in paper form, as my subscription ran out) and thought it was good but not great. I wonder why they decided to go with that story instead of the better ones in the book.

By the way, I think Stanley Elkin might be too much for me. I tried read the first chapter of The Magic Kingdom, and it took me like two days.