By Matthew E. Milliken
July 15, 2014
The characters in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower’s 2009 collection of short stories, are generally losers. That it’s often hard to turn away from this anthology is a testament to the author’s skill.
The opening story, “The Brown Coast,” begins with main character Bob Munroe waking up on the floor of a vacation cottage near the ocean in North Carolina. The property was jointly owned by Bob’s uncle and Bob’s recently deceased father. Although the two were not particularly close,
[H]is father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdled his enthusiasm for work and married life. He had fallen into a bad condition and, in addition to several minor miscalculations, he’d perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over.
In short order, Bob made a disastrous error on a house he was helping to build, thereby losing his job; rear-ended a lawyer who won a $38,000 court judgment, thereby wiping out his modest inheritance; and trysted with a fellow traffic school student, thereby losing his home and, potentially, his marriage.
Nearly everything in Bob’s life, in fact, seems to be an exercise in spiraling downward. When Uncle Randall suggests Bob vacation at the cottage, he has at least one ulterior motive — getting Bob to rehabilitate the badly neglected house and yard. Bob begrudgingly sets about improving things, but his life nevertheless continues deteriorating. Back home in or around Chapel Hill, N.C., his estranged wife takes up with someone else, and at the cottage, his proudest achievement is accidentally ruined. The story ends with Bob impulsively committing an act of charity. However, the gesture nearly goes awry, and in the final reckoning, it’s hard to determine if Bob should feel good or bad about the way things have turned out.
Matthew Lattimore, the narrator of “Retreat,” may be Tower’s most loathsome creation. Matthew and his brother, whose parents are now dead, have had a vicious lifelong sibling rivalry. Matthew is down and out, having been ruined by a real-estate crash, but he may or may not be on the upswing after having purchased property in rural Maine that he plans to develop as a residential community.
When he invites Stephen, a lonely and struggling music therapist, to fly out from Oregon for a visit, it’s not clear — probably not even to Matthew himself — whether he wants to reconcile with his brother or to engage in another round of oneupmanship.
But the relationship has a new dynamic thanks to Matthew’s friend, George, who sold him the property. By the story’s end, hubris drives Matthew to begin eating a dinner of tainted meat. It’s an act that verges on suicidal, but the conflict of egos make it seem perfectly understandable.
The next tale, “Executors of Important Energies,” is more ambiguous. It begins with the unnamed narrator, an unsuccessful inventor living in squalor in New York City, attempting to dissuade his stepmother from visiting. He’s unsuccessful, and Lucy arrives with the narrator’s increasingly demented father in tow.
Roger, a chess fanatic, invites his playing partner in Washington Square Park to join the family for dinner. After Dwayne, who may be homeless, insults Lucy, she storms off with her husband’s jacket. By the time dinner is over, she hasn’t returned. The destitute narrator is forced to pay for the lavish meal and has the thankless task of hunting down his stepmother. (Roger doesn’t know the hotel in which he and Lucy are staying.)
It’s not clear how the ruined evening will end, but Dwayne turns out to be willing to help his newfound acquaintances. As the trio drives into the night, the narrator reconsiders his assessment of Dwayne, while Roger fixates on a meaningless bauble in the chess player’s car.
The best story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned may be “Down through the Valley.” The narrator is Ed, who is summoned by his estranged wife, Jane, to a New Age retreat in Western North Carolina where she is staying. The reason: Barry, the man for whom Jane left Ed, has broken his ankle. Now Jane wants Ed to drive Barry home along with Ed and Jane’s daughter, Marie, because the sprawling mountainous compound is not a safe place for a young girl to go unsupervised.
Much of “Down through the Valley” is in keeping with Tower’s other writing. The narrator reminisces about his broken marriage; he bickers and reconciles with the people with whom he’s spending time; he narrator shifts from churlish to likable and back a number of times.
When Ed pulls in at a roadside diner, his attention is drawn to a young quarreling couple. Here things take a turn: When the quarrel turns physical, one of the travelers intervenes. What follows is a flurry of violence that reveals all too clearly the heart of one of the characters, and lays bare a truth that had been concealed by half-understood dreams.
“Door in Your Eye” is the tale of an aging man who moves in with his daughter and becomes obsessed with the woman — a possible prostitute — who lives nearby. When the narrator, Albert, see a visitor to his neighbor’s apartment engage in a futile attempt to burn it down, he goes to see the woman himself. It’s not clear how what Albert learns about Carol, and what she learns about him, may alter their lives, and the lives of Albert’s daughter, but it seems likely that a big change is just over the horizon.
“Wild America” is another story about people on the cusp of a major transition. The main character is Jacey, the only daughter of divorced parents who lives with her mother in or around Charlotte, N.C. The tale spans part of a late-summer Sunday shortly before the start of school. Practical Jacey — who plans for a career in pharmacy or physical therapy, but who longs to escape this mundane fate — chafes at spending time with her tall artistic beautiful cousin.
But Maya is staying with Jacey and Jacey’s mom for a few more days before she begins her studies at an exclusive performing arts high school, so Jacey doesn’t have much choice in the matter. After making an abortive play for a boyfriend Maya is trying to dump (the cousin, alarmingly, is now enamored of an administrator at her new school), Jacey invites a friend named Leander to come visit. The trio wander into a nearby park, but Jacey becomes disgusted after Leander falls beneath her cousin’s enchantment.
Jacey walks away and begins chatting with an older man who invites her to ride in his car. Disaster is ultimately averted, but humiliation is not — a pattern, one senses, that will repeat itself often in Jacey’s life.
Humiliation and disaster seem to visit most every character in “On the Show,” the tale of several people working at and visiting a traveling carnival decamped in a small Florida county. One character, a 7-year-old boy, is assaulted in a bathroom; his father, a divorcé enduring a date with a sloppy-drunk fellow divorcée who is quite smitten with him, realizes that his ex-wife will use the incident to cut off visitation.
A young man named Jeff Park signs on as a worker on the Pirate, one of the rides in the carnival, after brutishly scrapping with his newly remarried mother’s husband. He soon learns that his enormous boss and squirelly coworker are neither trustworthy nor sympathetic:
Park gazes at the climb, fifty feet up an extension ladder, lashed to the back of a support stanchion with nylon rope frayed to needles. His legs feel watery to look at it.
“I thought — I thought you said you’d do the high work, Ellis,” says Jeff Park.
Ellis sucks a tooth. “I changed my mind.”
Jeff scales the stanchion with the lightbulb in his mouth. The ladder is missing rungs, and his arms tremble as he climbs. He has nearly reached the top when a sudden wind rocks the ladder. “Oh,” Jeff cannot help but say. The lightbulb drifts from his lips and shatters on the deck.
“Three dollars,” the giant calls up to him. “Them shits don’t grow on trees.”
The sexual assault roils the carnival. Jeff suspects that Ellis may have something to do with it. Someone in the carnival’s management seems to pick Gary, the mildly autistic man who runs the Zipper ride, as a fall guy for the crime; he inhales an anonymous gift of drugs and is promptly injured on the job. The only person who eludes punishment is one who seems to most deserve it.
Tower’s title story is the final one in the volume, and it’s distinctive on several levels. The setting is Scandinavia in the Middle Ages, and the narrator is Harald, a Viking farmer who engages in pillaging whenever the superstitious community deems it necessary.
The round of warfare depicted in the story is mostly, but not entirely, bloodless. Harald’s bereaved best buddy, a widower named Gnut, emerges from the expedition with a new wife, and Harald himself is able to start a family when the voyage concludes. But the ending is bittersweet. The narrator learns that even when people get what they want, it’s hard to be content.
What’s strange about the collection is that it should be depressing, but it isn’t — not entirely, at least. Although the characters are screw-ups, they have moments of redemption and serendipity, however fleeting. While some may be doomed, Tower frequently leaves readers with at least a smidgen of hope that some of his character might be able to lead relatively happy lives.
I am not a devoted consumer of short fiction, but I enjoyed Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I’ll be more likely than not to read other volumes penned by Tower.