Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I was wandering around aimlessly in a bookstore when I came across this book. I had never heard about it and the name of the author was not familiar either, but I liked its title immediately. At that time I had a craving for a very dramatic and grave book, and this one seemed like a good choice based on the title.

The volume consists of nine short stories. I don’t know if this is a coincidence or not, anyway, I immediately thought of Salinger’s Nine Stories when I looked at the contents of Everything Ravaged, and I was half involuntarily, half consciously looking for similarities with Salinger’s book. One such similarity I found is the way Tower chooses the titles of the stories. I don’t have a rational explanation for this, but I have a strong feeling that Salinger himself could easily have written stories called Wild America, Down Through the Valley or On the Show.

(By the way, I like to think that nothing ever is a coincidence in any given piece of literary work, but everything has its meaning and purpose, and this is especially true for the title. And Mr. Tower gives the impression of a very clever man to me, so he might be well aware of the importance of conscious writing, consequently, I believe that the titles of his stories do not resemble those of Salinger’s stories by a simple coincidence.)

To put it very bluntly, these stories are good. These are not stories that really knock me out, but stories which are good in an intelligent, designed sort of way. It is undeniable that Tower knows his subject: the destitute of America, the outsiders, the weak, the nerd and the ones who suffer from a lack of self-confidence or a chronic lack of love. (The world he depicts reminds me of the movies of Hal Hartley, especially Henry Fool.) Furthermore, the topics he writes about are also interesting to me: the disintegration of human relationships; the way people start their lives over; how teenagers try to find their ways in life; chaotic family relations.

Of course these short stories are not only good because their themes are good, but also because they are quite well-written. I have an assumption that Tower thought each of his sentences over a thousand times, and he wrote and re-wrote them until they became just perfect. I feel that every word in this volume is exactly where and how it should be: there are no redundant flourishes here, no over-explanation of ideas, only clear and simple sentences.

Strictly speaking, these stories are not typical stories at all: they start all of a sudden, then end with the same abruptness, and depict only small, perhaps not very important episodes in the characters’ lives, but still, they manage to convey a sense of the protagonists’ personalities and the stories of their lives.

Although, as I stated earlier, the moral of the stories (if they have such a thing at all) is not spoon-fed to the reader, I find the symbols Tower uses a little bit too direct. For instance, I assume it is not that difficult to realize what Tower is driving at in the first story (The Brown Coast), when he writes that all the lovely sea-creatures of the protagonist (who is, by the way, just recovering from a disastrous separation from his wife) are poisoned by a sea cucumber, which was – how very interesting – put into the fishbowl by a woman. And the same applies to the second story (Retreat): what could it possibly mean that the protagonist shoots a moose, together with his long-estranged brother, and it turns out that the meat of the animal is poisoned?

Fortunately there are stories which are not as simple as these. My two favorites, Wild America and On the Show are, for example, truly delicate and many-faceted works, where we are not in the danger of getting to know too much too unambiguously.

To sum it up, these are not worthless stories at all, still, I was a little bit surprised to learn how very promising a talent Mr. Tower is deemed to be. I did some background checking as usual and I found that on the whole, Mr. Tower is already looked upon as the great hope of American literature, with only one published volume. I may be very difficult to please then, because I would not venture to say, based on this volume, that Mr. Tower is a truly great writer. His work is clever, good, impressive and interesting, yes, but I would rather read at least one of his other volumes later on before deciding exactly how much greatness he possesses.