"If the narrators and antiheroes of Tower’s stories are half-defeated he-men, bumbling and only partly tamed, then their rivals or antagonists are self-satisfied shamans or therapists or frontier socialists. In 'Leopard,' a young boy has a hateful stepfather who does nothing but make mulch and think up chores for the kid to perform. Addressing himself in the second person, the boy thinks, 'As a young liar, you can generally get pretty far on the assumption that adults have more important things to worry about than catching out a kid for every little fraud he tries to pull. But your stepfather seems to have plenty of time to study and doubt everything that comes out of your mouth.' If the intersection between hotheads and cool customers is one of the aspects of Tower’s fiction, another is class conflict. In the story called 'Wild America,' a middle-class girl flirts with a louche stranger who plies her with beer, and for a moment she forgets the ordinariness of her life. But when he drives her home, her heart sinks: 'At the sight of her father, the fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification took its place. There he stood, not yet 40, bald as an apple, and beaming out an uncomprehending fat-boy’s smile. His face, swollen with a recent sunburn, glowed against the green dark of the rosebushes at his back. He wore the cheap rubber sandals Jacey hated, and a black T-shirt airbrushed with the heads of howling wolves, whose smaller twin lay at the bottom of Jacey’s closet with the price tag still attached. Exhausted gray socks collapsed around his thick ankles, which rose to the familiar legs Jacey herself was afflicted with, bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve. Her humiliation was sudden and solid and without thought or reason. But the wordless, exposed sensation overwhelming her was that her father wasn’t quite a person, not really, but a private part of her, a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that was Jacey’s right alone to keep hidden from the world.' I quote this passage at such length because it reveals all the tensile strength of Tower’s remarkable style. His syntax, though always easy to follow, is supple enough to wrap itself around several shades of meaning in the same sentence. His understanding of previously under-recognized feelings (in this case, the humiliation of family resemblance) is rich in detail and passionate in utterance. And his familiarity with the whole ghastly world of malls and 'cute' commercial culture is serious, even plangent, certainly not merely satirical. Every one of the stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile. His range is wide and his language impeccable, never strained or fussy. His grasp of human psychology is fresh and un-Freudianizing. Ezra Pound once said that the most memorable passages are those that encapsulate kinetic movement rather than static images. He would have liked Tower’s description of a power boat as it 'bullied its way through the low swells, a fat white fluke churning up behind us.' And he’d have appreciated Tower’s rendition of a broken exhaust, which sounds 'like someone in a suit of armor getting dragged up the street.' Tower’s dialogue is as crisp and contemporary and offbeat as Lorrie Moore’s and his vision of America as despairing as Joy Williams’s (to cite just two of our greatest short story writers). I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The 'beyond' that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-delà, is America itself."—Edmund White, The New York Times Book Review "For all the literary pyrotechnics on display in this curious narrative, the rest of the stories are surprisingly straightforward. In fact, Tower's skill at things like exposition and characterization mark him as almost old-fashioned. The story Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was first published in the New York literary magazine Fence way back in 2002. The story won the Pushcart Prize and was anthologized in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories in 2004. In other words, this fresh new voice in American fiction is neither fresh nor new; and that's precisely what makes the arrival of this incredible talent so compelling. Tower's subject? He doesn't have one. He adeptly tackles all manner of familial conflicts: father vs. son, brother vs. brother, husband vs. wife, boy vs. stepfather, in other words, the world. (It must be said that all but one of the nine stories in the collection are told from the point of view of male protagonists.) The stories are set in locales scattered across the country, yet Tower displays the authority of a regional writer: 'He crossed the cockeyed patio. Tiny lizards scattered from his path. He followed the sound of waves to the end of the yard, through a stand of pine trees, limbless and spectral. He stepped from the pines onto a road paved with oyster shells whose brightness in the morning light made his eyes clench up.' It's hard to imagine anyone, much less a literary-minded fellow, paying such loving attention to coastal Florida, but the details are conjured up so thoroughly one can almost hear the skinks scurrying for cover in the understory. Tower brings his keen powers of observation to bear on the human form as well. In 'Executors of Important Energies,' a hustler's broken front tooth is described as 'a tiny gray guillotine.' A tall girl with too much makeup on in 'Down Through the Valley' is 'a bleached giraffe in tight jeans.' It sometimes feels as if there's nothing Tower can't render in arresting fashion. Near the end of 'Retreat,' a hunter who has killed a moose and cut out the short ribs and tenderloin characterizes the latter as 'a tapered log of flesh that looked like a peeled boa constrictor.' Tower's prose is a welcome reminder that the first job of the fiction writer is to introduce the reader to worlds both new and familiar in ways they wouldn't have arrived at on their own. In the collection's finest story, 'On the Show,' Tower writes with spellbinding virtuosity. Beginning with the portentous 'Now it's dark,' the story proceeds with the sun setting on a traveling carnival show. (Readers who have sworn off stories set in zoos and amusement parks will be happy to know that we're not in George Saunders' counterfactual America; sometimes a carnival is just a carnival.) The sky 'glows hyena brown' as egrets take flight over a drainage canal. A lizard, a 'Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank's enamel face into a crescent of deep rust.' The surface of the rusting tank prompts the lizard into changing colors, but it's a trick. 'Against the lizard's belly, the rust's soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard's hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.' This cinematic opening, full of garish colors and things not quite what they seem, introduces an unputdownable whodunit that centers on the molestation of a young boy. As to why Tower had to wait so many years for his debut is anyone's guess, but one suspects we'll be hearing his name—which invokes prose that is both soaring and deep—for a long time to come."—Jim Ruland, Los Angeles Times "The book is a triumph of a debut—not just believably generous, but revelatory in its rendering of all the different kinds of hurt that a human being can sustain in the course of a life. The characters that populate Everything Ravaged experience humiliation, loneliness, and anger in all their varieties, and their wounds are described by Mr. Tower with unflinching affection and tenderness. These are stories about people, mostly men, succumbing to their weaknesses—resentful sons, first husbands, angry brothers, all of them somehow guilty or deformed but all trying, clumsily, to either make someone happy or be in love or just for once not feel really disappointed."—Leon Neyfakh, The New York Observer"I thought the universal order of smart folks had agreed we were now living in a post-American world. If that's the case, then what's up with all the new novels that use American in the title — at least seven in 2008 alone. Maybe part of the answer is that we're a nation that has largely abandoned reading without entirely giving up on the mythic idea of the Great American Novel. I'm talking about old-school, realist fiction that seeks to show us who we are and how we might have gotten into this mess; books that are American in more than name alone. The way we live now, dig? . . . We need books like Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories in this new fiction collection by Wells Tower are set mostly in the places we do not wish to vacation in, but where many of us live. These are grim suburbs. Rings of shopping centers. Towns delineated by restaurants. The stories open with hangovers, fuel themselves on lousy food, and often end in extended, involuntary vacations. The emphasis is on life as it is lived—not in the grandeur of the cineplex but in small houses, and in the small moments of boredom and despair that characterize so much of our lives. This isn't The Grapes of Wrath, to be sure. Tower doesn't offer much hope. Nor does he offer an elegy. And yet what his portraits lack in grandeur, they compensate for in their accuracy. The America depicted here is jittery and exhausted. Nobody solves the crime. And nobody gets away with anything. The characters muddle on through. They get drunk and they get sad and they go broke and they perform weird acts of kindness, and sometimes they invade smaller countries for no good reason. I mean they live the way we Americans do."—Benjamin Alsup, Esquire"In his debut collection, Tower writes about raggedy men, neglected boys, and quarrelsome Vikings who are down on their luck (if they ever had any). But the stories are very funny, and surprising, and possess a rugged beauty."—Vendela Vida, Vanity Fair"Anyone who’s taken even a lazy stroll through the well-worn territory of destructive fictional masculinity—Hemingway, Carver, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Yates, Bolaño, et al.—will recognize the basic flora and fauna of Wells Tower’s stories: the hunting trips, the fistfights, the hard drinking, the adultery. He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence. His debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is (as its apocalyptic title suggests) an astonishingly well-stocked smorgasbord of cruelty, coercion, insult, and predation . . . Tower, who grew up in North Carolina, has been seeding these stories patiently across magazines and literary journals over the last ten years or so, quietly building a reputation as a painstaking stylist devoted to the near-impossible art of highly polished colloquialism. Reading his work piecemeal as it emerged, what stood out most was the lovely warmth of his voice. His sentences are strenuously musical, full of careful detail and surprising metaphors ('sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range'). He has a special talent for channeling the idiosyncrasies of lower-middle-class speech, and his plots often weave around bright little bursts of incidental dialogue . . . I didn’t realize, until I read the stories back to back, how much ugliness Tower forces that voice to contend with. His fictional universe is a perfectly balanced little biosphere of violence and mercy, aggression and nurturing. Epiphanies are instantly spoiled, scams turn out to be acts of kindness, mercy tips easily into sadism. When a victim catches a break, he immediately starts prowling for an advantage. And yet, somehow, the book is not cripplingly depressing. Tower’s voice is too consistently artful and funny and empathetic."—Sam Anderson, New York"The monumentally monikered Wells Tower mines middle-American heartbreak and chases down next-big-thing status in these nine stories culled from The New Yorker, The Paris Review and elsewhere. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is stuffed with astute psychological insights, pithy social observations and jarringly lovely turns of phrase (in one tale, a near-senile attorney watches a waiter pour wine 'as though he were watching a squirrel wash a cracker') . . . Thoughtfully structured and builds effectively to its penultimate and best story, 'On the Show.' (The final title piece, which won Tower a Pushcart Prize, is a jokey but haunting departure about Viking plunderers.) This account of a first date gone horribly wrong reveals Tower's adeptness with longer, multiperspective narratives, where his thematic concerns and characterizations have room to breathe."—Mark Holcomb, Time Out New York "A tragicomic study in the bleakly slow personal evolution of the human male . . . Tower's eloquent insights—his sentences can be surgically brilliant or slyly vague—[are] so damning and shaming for the male reader, and enthralling for either gender . . . It's an amazingly funny and smart debut."—Patrick Rapa, The Philadelphia City Paper"Wells Tower is a ferociously talented writer, author of one of the most powerful and entertaining books you’re likely to come across this year . . . Tower’s families and hapless men are bent and broken in a multitude of surprising and delightful ways."—Justin Taylor, Paste"Bittersweet, beautiful, and ardently conflicted . . . As evidenced by the emotional punch packed into such brief tales—nine stories in about 250 pages—Tower is almost incapable of overloading a sentence with an unnecessary word. His style is perfectly suited to short fiction: 'Down Through the Valley,' in less than twenty pages, is jammed with more pathos than a four-hundred-page potboiler."—Kevin Canfield, Bookforum"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, out next week, is a peculiar, visceral debut . . . There is always, just off the margins, a kind of dread and cruelty lurking, waiting to burst onto the page. Tower is a burgeoning master of articulating the weird shapes our private fears take when they become public—or real. The ambient unease of 'Down Through the Valley' soon erupts past terror into violence, displaced onto a bystander. There and elsewhere, the author is eerily, painfully adept at observing the exact moment of our own self-destruction, when the implicit becomes horribly overt. The title story, Tower's most bighearted and sentimental, is not coincidentally the one in which the violence is least sublimated: The story chronicles the marital and pillaging difficulties of a roaming band of blood-soaked Vikings. 'I guess I'm just drawn to people who defeat themselves,' says Tower, picking out the common thread. 'People who really want human connection, or who want a safe harbor, but can never have that, or somehow fuck that up.'"—Zach Baron, The Village Voice "I gotta tell you, I had fun reading these stories. I laughed out loud eight times during the first one, 'The Brown Coast,' and had a silly smile on my face throughout most of them. The guy in this story works with his hands and is down on his luck. He tries to put together something beautiful out of the creatures he finds in the tidal pools, but a thing that looks like it came out of a sewer poisons them all. When he throws the horrible creature at some beautiful people, they just sail away with a smile. There's a metaphor for most of the characters in Wells Tower's debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. There's also a metaphor in 'Retreat,' in which a guy who, after being caught off guard in the real estate market, buys a mountaintop in hopes of selling chunks of it to 'the sad paunchy hordes' as hunting escapes. The stink of it all is inescapable when he shoots a huge moose, only to find out that its flesh is bloated and rotten. He sticks a fork of it into his mouth anyway. Ewww! And there is probably a metaphor in 'Down Through the Valley,' when a guy's ex-wife asks him to pick up her new husband, who has injured himself—a Good Samaritan gesture that ends up in a fight with some young dude who is beating up his girlfriend. Our reluctant hero spits up 'something hot and thick' on his chin while being held down by a cop with a 'junior-size aluminum bat.' I mean, these guys just can't win. Even the kids have it tough. In 'Leopard,' an 11-year-old boy has a sore on his upper lip that looks like a miniature hamburger. He sets up a little revenge scenario against his stepfather, but, guess what? A cop shows up first and the plot fails. As he cowers before his angry stepfather, he listens for an apocryphal leopard he has seen on a 'lost pet' poster to come loping across the lawn to attack the guy. Not a chance, kid. And finally, when you get through laughing at all these poor guys, you reach the title story in the collection—the one Ben Marcus picked for The Anchor Books of New American Short Stories, calling Towers a 'blindingly brilliant writer.' And what is it? A story about a bunch of grunts who hump a vicious attack on a small island. But, get this: They aren't modern army grunts; they just sound that way. They are Vikings, man! When they finally get back home, the main character is glad to be with his wife, but he knows that they could also get attacked, and he lies awake at night listening for the sound of men with swords rowing toward his home. Heavy, man, heavy. Yes, I had fun reading these stories, but I have this uneasy feeling I'll hate myself in the morning."—Charles E. May, Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee) "In Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis—that classic essay on the origins of American republicanism—the historian pauses over a description of what happens to the pioneer when civilization catches up to him. It comes from an 1830s guide to the West. 'He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits . . . till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The preemption law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he "breaks for the high timber," "'clears out for the New Purchase," or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over.' This anti-social frontiersman with his elbows out is the guiding spirit of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned . . . [H]e has now published his first book, and suitably enough, it forges into the wilder regions of the American character in lucid, vernacular prose . . . The title story, set during the Viking era, is simultaneously unlike anything else in the collection and the best example of what Tower is up to. The characters are, yes, marauding Vikings who attack a neighboring island without provocation. Although Harald, the narrator, feels he has outgrown the whole rape-and-pillage game, and although his wife urges him to stay home, he hops on the longboat and then watches as his compatriots go 'on a real binge,' hanging monks from trees. The pathos in this story comes not from the brutality itself, but from Harald's curious detachment, which he conveys in riveting sentences. Here's his description of a grotesque ritual called the 'blood eagle': '[Djarf] placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod's spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he'd made an incision about a foot long . . . Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod's lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings. I had to turn away myself.' Tower's precise rendition of this grisly surgery—the crunch of the ribs, the image of Djarf fumbling around Naddod's innards, the lungs flapping like wings—builds to Harald's understated response, as if to a paper cut. He's the pillager-as-spectator, caught in the limbo between true callousness and true feeling, trapped—despite his longboat—in his passivity . . . The Vikings, of course, are really Americans—invading a tiny country for no apparent reason. And all the American characters in the collection are Vikings—randomly violent, tough, and dangerous to know—just on a smaller scale. They are real-estate developers, carpenters, and entrepreneur inventors, bumbling through life, alienating their spouses, relatives, and friends. Tower isn't the first writer to document the anti-social American spirit, but he's a keen observer of how the drive to break out of confinement rarely leads to true release. Like Harald, Tower's other characters—for the most part—do love their families, but they constantly find themselves striking out alone . . . Tower's characters have inherited the frontier mentality, but the wilderness they're taking on is no longer a physical space: It's other people and themselves. Their aggression is not so much willed as impelled, and while the pioneer at least creates something—a cabin, then a town—before leaving it all behind, Matthew, Jacey, and the rest only tear things down. Nor does Tower give them the solacing illusion that in this destructive process, they are claiming their freedom. It's a bleak state of affairs, alleviated for the reader—though not for pillagers themselves—by the sharp, brutal clarity of the author's prose."—Juliet Lapidos, Slate "Throughout nearly all of the nine stories in this crackling, head-turning debut, Tower’s characters—stagnating divorcées, misfit kids, even marauding Vikings—play out their dramas against a backdrop of lurking, unseen peril . . . Readers with a fetish for finely wrought sentences will find much to ogle—Tower seems incapable of writing a boring description—but it’s that ratcheted tension, that undercurrent of existential dread, that keeps one’s eyes cemented to the page."—Jonathan Miles, Men’s Journal"The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are the most arresting I’ve read in some time. Tower is adept at capturing the many ways men can be unhappy, lonely, stymied or adrift, and his language has the virtuoso inventiveness of Barry Hannah, that magic-trick quality that can make a description of an overcast sky feel new and strange . . . His characters come across like aliens, possessing the kind of maverick weirdness that marks them as real people rather than types . . . He’s also got a knack for pacing and a hell of a sense of humor. I so enjoyed 'The Brown Coast,' the collection’s first story, I read it twice before proceeding through the rest of the book."—Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast"I had fun reading these stories. I laughed out loud eight times during the first one . . . and had a silly smile on my face throughout most of them."—Charles E. May, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"Sharply funny . . . Obliquely devastating."—Grady McFerrin, Best Life"[An] inventive and surprising debut collection . . . The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are both entertaining and of a philosophical piece."—Daniel Menaker, The Second Pass "Wells Tower’s stories are written, thrillingly, in authentic American vernacular—violent, funny, bleak, and beautiful. You need to read them, now."—Michael Chabon, author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay"These are lurid, ingenious, beautiful, delicate, and very funny stories. Full of pity and terror, they are also great fun to read. Wells Tower has written a brilliant book."—Benjamin Kunkel, author of Indecision"Wells Tower is a blindingly brilliant writer who does more than raise the bar for debut fiction: he hurls it into space. With the oversized heart of George Saunders, the demon tongue of Barry Hannah, and his very own conjuring tools that cannot here be named, Tower writes stories of aching beauty that are as crushingly funny and sad as any on the planet."—Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String"As evidenced by the emotional punch packed into such brief tales—nine stories in about 250 pages—Tower is almost incapable of overloading a sentence with an unnecessary word. His style is perfectly suited to short fiction . . . Tower possesses a gift for evoking the natural world through comparisons to mundane objects . . . The stories often inform and deepen one another by showing how easily expectations can be upended by happenstance . . . Tower truly shines when he’s writing about the worries and fears—and momentary triumphs—that animate less dramatic lives . . . The sentiment, so characteristic of Tower at his best, is bittersweet, beautiful, and ardently conflicted."—Kevin Canfield, Bookforum"A debut story collection from Pushcart Prize winner Tower. Tower's stories could last 15 rounds with Donald Ray Pollock's story collection Knockemstiff (2008), after which both volumes would likely scrape themselves off the mat, bloody and raw, and go split a bottle of rotgut whiskey. Most of these stories have first-person narrators, many of them middle-aged men, who turn to alcohol to numb the pain of familial discord or divorce. Not that all of these narratives are variations on a single theme. Sibling rivalry seethes through 'Retreat,' which begins: 'Five is about the number of strong drinks it takes to make me want to call my brother on the phone.' A father's death sends a good man spiraling into a living hell in the opening story, 'The Brown Coast.' In 'Leopard,' the second-person narration invites the reader to enter the consciousness of an 11-year-old boy, his innocence undermined by masturbation, murder and a tense relationship with his stepfather. 'On the Show' reinforces everything scary associated with traveling carnivals—the carnies featured include a heroin addict, a child molester and a young man on the run from a fight with his stepfather. After many stories set in the indeterminate present, the title story, which closes the collection, concerns marauding Vikings, with the final paragraph offering the closest thing to an affirmation you'll find in these pages. The title barely hints at the scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners power of the stories."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)"Tower’s debut story collection confirms what readers of Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and other major publications have known for some time: Tower is a serious talent . . . Tower’s voice is honest and strange, humorous and insightful."—Kevin Clouther, Booklist"The title of this outstanding collection could well refer to the lives of the characters that Pushcart Prize winner Tower writes about-most often, individuals whose lives have fallen apart and are struggling through the difficult transition between a lost past and an uncertain future. In 'The Brown Coast,' a recent divorcé working to restore a run-down seaside cottage in Texas owned by his uncle makes the acquaintance of a veterinarian and his wife. 'Retreat' concerns the strained relationship between another middle-aged divorcé who has recently purchased land in Maine and the brother he invites for a visit, a solitary music therapist from Seattle. The title story, ranging farthest in place and time, ostensibly concerns a band of Vikings out on a rather desultory raid of a nearby island, but it seems as much about the universal transition from the wild single life to the settled world of marriage and family. Tower has crafted a powerful and assured debut collection. Highly recommended."—Lawrence Rungren, Library Journal"The stories in this outstanding debut collection explore the troubled relationships of men down on their luck, in failed marriages, estranged from family, caught in imbroglios between sons and their fathers and stepfathers, and even, in 'Wild America,' the subtle and ferocious competition between teenage girls. Bob Monroe, the protagonist of 'The Brown Coast,' loses his job, his inheritance and his wife after the death of his father. The narrator of 'Down Through the Valley,' meanwhile, is persuaded to drive his ex-wife's boyfriend home from an ashram after he injures himself. In 'Leopard,' the threat of a missing pet leopard lurking in the woods hints at a troubled 11-year-old's rage toward his stepfather. The narrator of 'Down Through the Valley' has a savage freak-out that terrifies him. The strange and magnificent title story, in which Vikings set off again toward an oft-raided island, beautifully ties the collection together in its heartbreaking final paragraph. Tower's uncommon mastery of tone and wide-ranging sympathy creates a fine tension between wry humor and the primal rage that seethes just below the surface of each of his characters."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Wells Tower’s short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York.
Viking marauders descend on a much-plundered island, hoping some mayhem will shake off the winter blahs. Watch animator Chris Roth's short adaptation of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned -- the title story of Wells Towers' highly anticipated debut story collection.