Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Book in a nutshell: Things go to hell not with a bang, but a whimper, in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of nine vivid short stories by Wells Tower about men who have seen too much, failed too often, or simply lived too long. Cribbed from venues like McSweeney’s, Harper’s, and The Paris Review - which awarded him the Plimpton Prize in 2002 – Tower’s stories of masculine despair carry a peculiar sense of humor and a ringing sadness.

Just listen to the parched dialogue in “Retreat,” where two brothers confront their poisoned relationship. Matthew Lattimore, a boozy, wealthy divorcee, answers his younger brother Stephen’s query as to what’s wrong. “Nothing,” says the elder brother. “My life is on fire.” A liaison of a different sort emerges in “Door In Your Eye,” as eighty-three-year-old Albert engages the drug dealer next door.

Other pitfalls await our leftover narrators. In the prize-winning opener, “The Brown Coast,” everyman Bob Munroe loses everything after his father’s untimely death, a car accident and a foolish affair. Everyday catastrophes, but Tower makes them tragic nonetheless. Other men are disasters waiting to happen, like the simmering narrator of “Down Through the Valley,” who grudgingly agrees to transport an unlikely passenger. “You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up,” he says.

A pair of standout stories ends the collection with rare humor and elegance. In “On The Show,” Tower finds the poetry in the lives converging at a traveling carnival, while the hilarious title story depicts the office politics of a group of Viking marauders. “After that trip, things changed,” says Harald, the reluctant raider. “It seemed to me that all of us were leaving the high and easy time of life and heading into deeper waters.” Judging the human condition by these characters, it’s easy to believe we all wind up in the deep end eventually.

Sample of prose: Dusk at the carnival: “Now it’s dark. The sun has slipped behind the orange groves, disclosing the garbled rainbow of the carnival rides. The blaring reds of the Devil’s Choir and the blue-white of the Giant Wheel and the strobing greens of the Orbiter and the chasing yellow and purple of the Chaises Volante mingle and the sky glows hyena-brown.”

Pros: There’s an everyday humanity to each of these characters that makes them appealing.

Cons: No matter how well-written, this is pretty bleak stuff.

Final word: A sublime collection of deftly composed cautionary tales.

No comments: