As I believe is becoming clear to anyone who reads my reviews regularly, I have a penchant for things like names and titles. I came across the name Wells Tower two summers ago when I was working at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. At the time, Tower’s book wasn’t even in galleys but I knew I wouldn’t forget that moniker in a hurry. This spring, FSG published Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned and I rushed to the bookstore as soon as I received graduation funds from my grandparents. I vanquished Tower’s book promptly, much like his Vikings vanquish whom they choose in his final story.
Tower’s prose is fairly plain, straightforward. But he knows when to throw in a zesty noun or verb, like ravaged, to prick your attention. The simplicity of his language is deceptive, and neither are his characters hot shots. More often than not, they are regular Joes, playing at bigger roles and quickly determining that what they are suited for is less glamorous and more comfortable.
The internal troubles of Tower’s characters manifest in their surroundings. The helplessness of a recently separated man is embodied by the decimation of his gigantic fish tank, while a boy’s fear of his peers and stepfather is encapsulated in the lurking presence of a leopard. Tower mostly focuses on men in his stories, men and boys who are adrift, have lost or have not yet found their anchors.
In most stories, the events that Tower turns into revolutionary moments are fairly basic. My favorite occurred in “Door in Your Eye.” A man who has just moved in with his daughter believes that their neighbor is a prostitute. He watches a wide variety of men enter said neighbor’s house while perched on his daughter’s porch. Aside from the man’s endearing nosiness, what I liked most about him was what he occupied himself with while spying on the neighbors. Every morning he goes out to paint the sky. It is these sorts of details that distinguish Tower’s people from the usual characters on the fringe, making them unique and plausible.
Tremors of despair certainly loiter beneath the surface of these stories. The fundamentals of the lives described are not dramatically awry, but neither are they particularly secure or even pleasant. These characters are not setback by customary hiccups of existence but they are affected and Tower allows them to be shaped by these occurrences without pitying them or hanging them out to dry.
The men, women and children of these stories are flawed. Few have magnanimous or glamorous goals. Managing their god-given peccadilloes and learning to construct them into something satisfactory is enough work. Tower gets into the heads of the ordinary and unravels their emotions and ponderings with a sensitivity and patience not always seen in a writer.
Tower’s debut is attracting a lot of attention. He is being compared to a number of masters and mistresses of the short story. The praise is largely rooted in his vernacular abilities and the tightly bound quality of each story. Anything of excess has been battered from the lines of his polished first work.
This collection is both amusing and brooding, two moods one can usually expect from life. Despite the down and out situations many of Tower’s characters are found in, the bitterness they might possess remains absent. They maintain their humor: Life gives you lemons, and if you can’t find a way to make lemonade why not crack a grin.