Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned": Book Review

If Raymond Carver were funnier and George Saunders lived in the seedy South, they might have collaborated on this collection. Tower blends Carver's steady pace with Saunders' deadpan tone. For a début, this brings a writer worth watching.

The NYRB and LA Times raved about these tales, all previously published. I'd be less gushing, but I recommend this book if with reservations. I'd read "Leopard" originally in "The New Yorker," and as a note indicates of these nine "a number have been extensively revised." "Leopard," for example, has more added to the exposition that better grounds it in the boy's relationship with his stepfather. Tower takes his time to let scenes unfold; as with an indie arthouse film, you eavesdrop on low-lifes and oddballs left adrift, yet scrutinized and directed by someone with better education and class status who arranges his scruffy characters to convey social satire and psychological critiques. As with such an angular perspective, what one viewer finds smug another may find snugly fitting. These stories may entertain, but as with Carver and Saunders, they also discomfort you.

The closing title story comes closest to Saunders, as it places maurading Vikings on the Scottish coast speaking in the casual, slangy, swear-ridden diction of ordinary American folks who "get it done." One comes to so much historical fiction with high-flown phrasing, and the jarring yet familiar rephrasing of mercenaries a thousand years ago speaking as if you and me casually on the job fits the scenario by humanizing it. "No one looking in on us would have known we were the reason this girl was missing an arm, and also the reason, probably, that nobody asked where Bruce's wife had gone." (234)

As with Carver and other noted stylists, there's brief grace within the mundane reports from Tower's downtrodden protagonists. "The Brown Coast" with its decaying Florida setting naturally encourages even put-upon people to occasionally rise to poetry. "The sun looked orange and slick, like a canned peach." (16) The water's "as thick and warm as baby oil." However, a sea slug signals threat: "it looked like the turd of someone who'd been eating rubies." (23)

"Retreat" follows with another suburbanite's encounter outdoors, in Maine. In his cabin, thanks to the imposition of lace fripperies by a well-meaning neighbor: "My house was starting to resemble something you'd buy your mistress to wear for a weekend in a cheap motel." (37) Later, a moose is shot, and as it falls and tries to rise, its "effect was of a very old person trying to pitch a heavy tent." (56) These two stories remained my favorites, pitting irascible men against resisting nature.

"Door in Your Eye" turns more tender, and reminded me of Carver's "Cathedral" in its pattern and mood. "Wild America" tries for more complication in showing teenaged angst and sexual rivalry, but for me in its introduction of a stereotypical Southern good ol' boy it fails to rise to, say, Flannery O'Connor in its attempt to convince me of this particular grotesque on his rock with his radio in the middle of the stream. It shows its MFA-type of structure too obviously, and the imagery of the pigeon and cat seems a bit too clumsy for a writer who elsewhere shows restraint.

"Executors of Important Energies" turns into a case study of a misfit chess player; "Down Through the Valley" takes the old set-up of an estranged father coming to meet his child in the company of his wife's new paramour and with such phrases as "mule-eyed cowrie man" succeeds in pinning down a man in a phrase. These stories do however seem very much out of an academically trained writer's sensibility; Carver, Saunders, and O'Connor may have shared this background, but they also learned to shake off the schematics that still gird too clearly many of these stories in the middle sections. They move along but as with the indie film, you can feel the strain and the slow spots at times. With more time and applied skill, which Tower has, I predict he will learn to cover up the joints and stitches more smoothly.

This can be seen in "On the Show." It roams through a carnival's workforce, and shows Tower's ability to move from one character to another as if a filmmaker with an ensemble cast: "he has a face like a paper bag smoothed flat by a dirty palm." (195) While we do strain to get into the minds of those often left half-ciphers on the page, the attempt does show Tower's refusal to fill in all the blanks for us. This may please some audiences and rankle others. He leaves you off-balance and as with seven of the eight other stories, does not end his narrative when and where you expect. (Posted to Amazon US 9/12/09)

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