Wells Tower’s first story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, appeared in my in-box weeks ago, but I only got around to it during our recent break by Chesapeake Bay – an appropriate landscape of Waspish towns and lobsters shacks, pick-up trucks and yacht yards, foreclosed condos and back-creek ranchers in which to read his derisive assessment of our uncanny ability to balls-up the American dream. Tower’s book has been extensively reviewed since idling on my desk, with raves from such as the New York Times to the Independent – so I guess the short story is not, quite, dead. So many raves that it seemed heavily freighted to disappoint.
It didn’t. It is a remarkable debut about dysfunctional fathers and sons, sibling rivalry, bickering buddies, and messy love affairs, whose relentless catalogue of misery is saved – made bearable, made un-putdownable – by a combination of savage humor and literary agility. In “Retreat,” a brother’s festering jealousy peaks in the nastiest of conclusions, in “Wild America,” adolescent despair and competitiveness swerves by disaster, and in the title story, a speedy yarn of gut-churning violence recounted in chirpy American-ese, two happy-go-lucky Vikings learn the unsettling side-effects of developing a conscience. Man’s inability to vanquish lust, greed, envy, and careless destructiveness, Tower implies, stands between us and the potential for paradise. And the price paid for love is to lie awake night after night, waiting to hear “the sounds of men rowing toward your home.” A chewy, heartbreaking collection – heartily recommended.