You’ve Got Male
By Michael Reid Busk
Too many published stories are featherweight and twee, or paralyzed by their characters’ ennui, or stylistically enslaved to minimalism, and Tower’s tales are a healthy counterbalance: grave, masculine, gleefully descriptive, and funny in a way that evokes the domestic friction of Everybody Loves Raymond as much as the absurd fiction of George Saunders. In these stories, viscous with testosterone, sex is pride as well as lust, and Tower portrays it with both heat and humor, at one point describing a trophy wife as having “the kind of hungry, large-eyed prettiness around which Japanese cartoonists have established whole religions of lechery.”
All the Seven Deadly Sins are on Technicolor display here, but it is wrath which takes the starring role, a gut-deep fury that boils out of the characters to poison whatever they touch. Wrath is a dark theme, but the tenderness Tower finds embedded within it recalls Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse”: “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down . . . you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate . . . our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.” It is just this subterranean marbling of love into hate that relieves the darkness of the collection. As the narrator of “Retreat”—the gashed brother—drunkenly confesses: “But six deep ones, and our knotty history unkinks itself into a sad and simple thing. I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we’ve spent lost to each other.”
However, in sequence, these protagonists—desperate, failed men—begin to feel like variations on a theme. Moreover, although Tower writes with the admirable immediacy of a journalist, many take the form of cookie-cutter human interest pieces, beginning in media res, later adding the pertinent bits of biographical detail, then following the protagonist along a roundabout path to an ambiguous ending; slice-of-life stories meant to gesture toward a larger change or movement the story itself does not portray.
But the collection ends with a revelation, the title story, a home run that shows just how brilliant, hysterical and harrowing Tower can be. “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is a tale of a Viking raid told from one warrior’s point of view, but in an anachronistic slacker voice that’s more Jeff Spicoli than Leif Erickson. In 11th Century Norway, crop blights and dragon attacks make a war-crazy village leader suspect dark magic, so he leads the narrator, his best friend and a band of bloodthirsty local teenagers to Northumbria to kill the suspected monk/spellcaster and make off with sundry booty. The story is brutal, and brutally funny, and ends with an extraordinary coda that encapsulates the fears and longings of all the book’s characters: “After Pila and me had our little twins, and we put a family together, I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. 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.”
This debut collection is sizeable down payment. Let us hope Wells Tower will continue to ride the monsters deeper down into the human heart, that place of unspeakable feeling beneath even love and hate.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardcover. 256 pages.