I am rife with anecdotes for this one.
Last week, I was sitting at a bar, drinking a beer and reading the first story in Wells Tower’s short story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned while I waited for some writer friends to come join me. When they arrived, they greeted the sight of the book in my hand with a kind of noise somewhere between a groan and a growl.
YES! I said.
YES! we all agreed.
We wanted to hate the book. To a group of people who spend their days eeking out sentences it seems like we can only hope to have each other read, watching the praise, press and rapturous accolades bestowed upon this guy’s debut accumulate over the past few months was pretty intense. Two of us (myself included) admitted to marking one of Mr. Tower’s May readings on our calendars, just so we could check him out, only to ruefully let the day pass by. Most of us thought he made up his name. I requested the book from my library and had to wait two months to finally get my hands on it, leaving me wondering how this guy got so many people in Queens even–of all places!–to line up to read his work. UGH! But then, you know, I got the book, and I started it, and well, it is really that fucking good.
I tried to savor the collection, couldn’t, finished it almost immediately. Then, I went–again with some writer friends–to the Bryant Park Reading Room to see a conversation with Wells Tower and Lydia Peelle, moderated by John Wray (who, you recall, I also wanted to hate–I am a hater, this is becoming clear). And, as would have been a surprise to me before actually reading the book but wasn’t after I read it, Mr. Tower was charming, funny, self-deprecating, literate, thoughtful and really, really likable. After the event, I admitted I’d read a library copy of his book so I had nothing for him to sign, which he actually seemed totally happy about (I guess writers like libraries) and then, like some weird teenage fan, I used the word “awesome” about sixteen times to describe his work. He was very nice, and humble. Sigh. So, from one extreme to the other.
Now, on to the book itself. It’s a collection of nine stories and it kicks off with one of the best, I thought: “The Brown Coast.” Reading it in the bar that day, I was laughing to myself like a manic and clutching my hand over my heart by the end. What he was breaking my heart over–that was the special part–a bunch of sea creatures fished out of the ocean, a torrent of aquarium water. In another story, it was spoiled meat that drove the stake in. A man’s awkward attempt at making small talk with his ex-wife’s lover in another.
The prose is equal parts precise and plain. There aren’t a lot of fancy words or quirky sentence constructions–it’s the singularity of the lives and psyches observed here that make the book so special. Here’s where, although I’d already been suspecting it, I realized I was wrong in my opinion of Wells Tower. It’s from the second page of the first story:
Bob had not been close with his father, so it was puzzling for him and also for his wife, Vicky, when his father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdles his enthusiasm for work and married life. He had fallen into a bad condition and, in addition to several minor miscalculations, he’d perpetrated three major fuckups that would be a long time in smoothing over. He’d reported to work with a blind hangover, committed a calamitous oversight on a house he’d been helping to build, and soon after lost his job. A few weeks later, he’d rear-ended a local attorney, who, as a result of the collision, developed a clicking in his jaw and convinced a jury that the injury was worth $38,000, which was $2,000 more than what Bob’s father had left him. Worst of all, he had tried to find relief from the unpleasantness by trysting with a lonely woman he’d met in traffic school. There’d been no joy in it, just a two-week spate of drab skirmishes in a basement apartment that smelled heavily of cat musk.
Not long after the affair had run its course, Bob and his wife were driving into town when Vicky looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman’s footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own, and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home.
Right? “Drab skirmishes” to describe an affair–can’t you smell that basement? Can’t you imagine the chill Bob must have felt as Vicky raises her foot? And that’s just the beginning.
The title story, though, comes at the end. It got the most conversational air-time in Bryant Park and is about Vikings, not the everyday people (mostly, but not all, men) found in the other stories. The ending to that story is great, but overall I found it a bit disconcerting and didn’t like it as much as the rest, or as much as everyone else seemed to like it. Of course, it has the title to recommend it, which is pretty excellent.
Will I become less of a hater because of this literary experience? Doubtful. But, I am certainly glad I sucked it up and gave Wells Tower (which, by the way, I concede is probably his real name) a chance.