[5 April 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
Holy hell! After enduring years of literary atrophy, mostly reading stories by authors so alienated from what the majority of actual human beings suffer, they compensate for a lack of authentic visceral insight with decorative, purple prose and quirky coincidences, now an author emerges who again dares to pierce the heart of modern realism, revealing the conflicted spirit of middle-America, a troubling yet real place populated by lonely divorcees, hormonal teens, Alzheimer-afflicted fathers and the sons who can’t care for them, each person searching for the treasure chest of meaning in a landscape that’s already been pillaged, the earth salted.
Introducing Wells Tower, author of the debut story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection that paralyzes with its unflinching take on remorse and the future’s uncertainty, with stories as believable and as haunting as the epigraphs chiseled into tombstones.
First off, his character don’t whimper or complain or tacitly overanalyze a relatively simple conflict ad nauseam, but rather they burn and seethe with hidden rage, they glow with the embers of compassion, they smolder with regret and endure their tasteless decisions as they keep on keeping on, rugged and brazen, haphazardly trying to puzzle together some semblance of comfort, in pursuit of a happiness they’ll never actually achieve, characters almost too real to read without squirming.
For example, take the Viking from the title story, which is the only story set anytime other than present day. Here’s a man who despite the countless villages he has pillaged and the copious amounts of blood he has senselessly spilled during his many previous voyages still longs for home and his wife’s embrace, caught in the tide of his warrior culture, neither unaffected, nor willing to change his ways, a man who knows he has sinned, and knowing that the world is full of sinners just like him, cannot help but worry about the future of his children.
Then there’s Bob Monroe, recently divorced as a result of his wife finding a footprint on the windshield that was obviously not her size, a guy who moves into his uncle’s dump cottage off the Florida shore only to discover some hope in the local marine life, a hope that is quickly dashed when his neighbor attempts to cheat on her husband and his aquarium once so full of exotic life is ravaged by a sea cucumber, proving to him once and for all that anything worth a damn inevitably withers or leaves. In the end, Bob goes so far as liken himself to the aquatic killer, thinking “he’d probably have been family to this sea cucumber, built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near.”
Brutes, drunkards, estranged fathers, everyday characters trying to carve out a simple, decent existence teem throughout Tower’s collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. There are rivaling brothers on retreat who “can share joy as passionately as single-mindedly as [they] do hatred.” There are competitive teenage girls who bicker over skinny, acne-ridden boys only to discover the dangers of sex. There are infirm elderly men who find a moment’s comfort in the den of drug dealers, and there are gorgeous children who are forever altered when dragged into carnival port-a-potties, a belt buckle gleaming in the darkness. In short, his characters don’t simply live, but come to life and simply deal with the powers that drag them through the mud, because essentially, mercilessly, shit happens.
The terrible thing about most stories these days is that they’re always neatly packaged with this foolish concept of meaning, wrapped in a bow of seductive language, a fictional present, never really cutting at the harsh reality of being human. Tower, on the other hand, doesn’t cower behind his mommy’s leg. Instead he walks the tightrope of greatness, balancing between our messy reality and the fantasy inherent in all fiction, exposing the lowlifes and the downtrodden for who they really are: lonely, frustrated, worrisome, striving individuals, all fighting a current too strong to resist, muscles and mind burning, rowing toward an uncertain future.
And you feel exactly how unpredictable and life-threatening Tower’s conception of the future is whenever you reach the end of one of his stories. Right off the bat, you can forget about resolution or catharsis. As if any real story could be resolved neatly, without lingering. As if any actual conflict could be simply dissolved inside some fairytale realization and result in instant change for anyone, character or real. No, Tower’s endings possess a quiet, haunting abruptness, which set readers adrift at sea instead of calculatedly landing them in a happily-ever-after, or even a not-so-happily-ever-after. Simply put, nothing is so black and white in Tower’s world.
In the words of Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards,” and Tower brings that expression to bear with staggering honesty. His endings are neither so disastrous that his characters can’t recover, nor so happy that they can forget about the rest of their worries. For example, when the teenager Jacey in “Wild American” pulls herself away from the grubby mitts of some sleazy guy and then sprints past her naïve father in order to quickly retreat to the comfort of her childhood home, who knows what will happen in that next, unwritten moment? Only one thing’s for certain: this moment and the others that Tower writes will forever haunt the characters, sending ripples through their hazy tomorrows, regretful and regretting even now.
Truth is, there are no clear endings in our lives, because even our ghosts inhabit the memories of those we’ve wronged, and the best part about Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is the book never ventures to solve our problems, it never dares to dot periods at the end of the disturbing segments of these characters’ lives.
Ultimately, Tower’s collection is a brilliant portrayal of hard-working, unlucky folks who, as it turns out, have an emotional and ethical depth all their own. Just as we office admins and construction workers alike endure slings and arrows without ever achieving that figurative closure, his characters also struggle for meaning the same way, which is always a fruitless, yet seductive pursuit, one that doesn’t come to a conclusion, but continues onward until death, like a Viking choking back his guilt as he rows toward the shore of a village that doesn’t deserve to be ransacked and ravaged.
So if you’re sick of the unrealistic tear-jerkers that desperately try (and often fail) to induce bouts of uncontainable sentimentality that you could literally vomit, if you’re so utterly nauseated from the unbelievable urbanites strutting down Madison Avenue swinging shopping bags all the while bleeding internally over silly conflicts like losing the ability to turn heads after turning 40-years-old or, even worse, bad hair days, then crack open Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and enter this pungent, unashamed landfill of a world, American down to the decaying elephant ears left in the wake of a greasy carnival, loaded with characters seasick with heavy regrets, tossed like rag dolls along the tide of hope that can only end in shipwreck. Just as Tower writes for the ending of the title story:
You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have 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. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.
Filled with all the doom of contemporaries Joyce Carol Oates and the disturbing delivery of J.D. Salinger in Nine Stories, Tower’s revival of minimalist prose, gritty metaphors and arresting, raw similes won’t disappoint. Though forbidden from childhood, each one of his character plays with those figurative matches, a game we all secretly enjoy, a gleeful, almost demented diversion that liberates us just as much as it threatens our lives, and Tower captures these complex moments of juggling responsibility and freedom with an authentic, lasting, and real American voice that’s bound to grip readers for years to come.