A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Lindisfarne
by Drew Johnson
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. 256 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. $24.00
In 2002, then-fiction editor Ben Marcus published Wells Tower’s second short story in the literary journal Fence. The story was subsequently anthologized a couple of times—once by Marcus himself in an anthology where most of the other authors were canonical contemporary giants or at least (and unlike Tower) had already published a book.
Now, the much-admired “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is the title story in Wells Tower’s first collection, but it’s worth noting that before this, passed around and read aloud, “Everything Ravaged” was the opening move in a reputation that—unusual for the author of a first book—is not only old enough to be learning multiplication tables, but was up and running without a publicist in sight.
But let’s not start with “Everything Ravaged.” In fact, let’s not even start with Wells Tower. Let’s begin with John Cheever, whose work, with the publication of Blake Bailey’s new biography, has returned to the center of the discussion. In 1947, The New Yorker published one of Cheever’s most successful excursions into the fantastic, “The Enormous Radio,” a story that wouldn’t seem out of place as a Twilight Zone episode. In the story, an exhaustively typical couple purchases a radio that unexpectedly allows them to tune into the conversations of their neighbors throughout the apartment building. A multitude of bourgeois secrets are transmitted to the reader, “demonstrations of carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.”
Cheever is playing with us—what, after all, is the currency of a short story? To what do stories typically build? Usually a minor revelation, the loosing of some secret or another in a story’s final pages.
“Radio” dances with this predictability. Cheever is gleefully profligate with the apartment dweller’s secrets, scattering an anthology’s worth of middle-class revelations across a single story’s pages: the pearls of swine. Yet even as he is doing this, even as he is exploding the framework of the standard-issue short story, he manages to fulfill the very expectations he lampoons. Engineering the wife’s decline, the radio disturbing and consuming her, Cheever brings the story round to the inevitable marital blow-out, setting the husband off like a firework finale—he shouts the wife’s worst secrets across one paragraph-length speech. Obviously a stunt, yet still horrible and therefore moving. Cheever maintains his balance.
You could read a story like “The Enormous Radio” as only a clever stunt—the surreal result of an absurd conceit—but considered as a spoof on a certain set of conventions, the story shows Cheever thumbing his nose at a genre he practiced to the point of boredom. His escapes seamlessly reaffirm the genre, and, oddly, it is the reader who benefits from this subterranean rebellion. Keep “The Enormous Radio” and Cheever’s balance in mind.
Most of the stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned concern either men just now noticing how little they’ve made of their lives or children wondering how much longer everything they want will remain out of reach. In general, the stories stay in a familiar American landscape, a landscape unlikely to surprise Cheever or Carver or Ford—inevitable mostly because Tower’s bored and unhappy America is actually out there. Tower makes out of that expected malaise something memorable; he doesn’t just deposit another series of misspent lives on the shelf. Tower gives us Bob Munroe, the faltering husband and carpenter of “Brown Coast;” Ed, the hot-tempered ex of “Down through the Valley;” and Matthew, the deranged realtor and brother of “Retreat.” Each of the characters has premise to spare, yet comes alive by way of Tower’s unexpected sentences.
Unexpected: that may sound like faint praise: don’t all writers do just that? No, as most writers rarely deploy their sentences as Tower does—flexible, searching threads that become a story’s line of thought. Tower doesn’t merely lodge some blasting sting more or less sensically at the tail of his sentences; he shapes his phrases so that they mimic our banalities and then shiver just a little bit. Their meaning deepens, and becomes not just a better read—a better path for the reader’s eye—but a truer path, too. These small surprises feel like people remembering at the last minute—as they tell their stories—to try to get through to you. At the beginning of “Down Through the Valley” a predictable enough sketch of marital woe twists a little:
When Jane left me for Barry Kramer, it was a heavy kind of hurt, but by the time she took up with him, there wasn’t a whole lot left of us. For quite a while, we’d been nothing but an argument looking for different ways to happen.
One simple American turn-of-phrase—an argument/fight waiting to happen—belongs briefly to the narrator and so also to us.
More fun than his mastery of our banalities, Wells Tower is sure-footed with and delighted by profanity, as well as the tangentially vile; unlike the carpet-bombing of a “motherfucker” unalloyed to the surrounding sentence, Tower’s vulgarity adorns his language, makes it more beautiful rather than less. His characters try to live by their language in the present—swearing to push back against their circumstances. They are not comforted by deep ruminations or long back-story; they are creatures of the present.
Guy Davenport writes, “In the present, we have only living bodies and their fates: nothing else.” Everything moves in these stories, and everyone in them is alert to the world around them—this is Tower’s necessary conceit. His magic can’t work without interest and so everything is interesting and alive, right now. Tower seems to regard the space of a story as something to be filled: with lovely arabesques of vulgarity, nature in many forms, shards of technical information clinging to the physical world, humor.
In “Executors of Important Energies,” a lawyer prides himself on his antisocial clients. As if powered by its own curiosity, Tower’s prose scrambles handily along:
He found pleasure in recounting for my mother and me the stories of his “guys,” the details of their cases, the last expressions of the murdered, etc., to confirm himself as the captain of all knowledge, ugly and good. Before I’d finished second grade, my father was imparting axioms like “Burt, fight to the death before you let somebody put you in his car. Either way, you’re probably dead, and believe me, it’s better to check out before they get creative on you.”
If Tower’s stories drift a little, they do so because he favors timelines as narrow as the pages of his stories. Most of the characters don’t attain or seem to desire any deep-rootedness—they are conjured, they perform, and they disperse. These characters are closely observed but deeply felt, and what makes them unusual is Tower's willingness to just let them exist as phenomena, instead of only insisting that the reader care about these near-strangers as if they were Shake-n-Bake family members. One of the best stories in the collection, “On the Show” makes that tendency into a strength, taking as its subject the disposably episodic lives of carnival workers.
“On the Show” is Tower’s most crowded landscape, one peopled with a series of quick, vivid cameos. There are the carnies: Leon the foreman, the forlorn Jeff Park (newest member of the crew), and his bunkmate Ellis. Alongside these, one finds the dutiful pleasure-seekers: Jim Lemons, a market research manager; Sheila Cloatch, his date for the evening; and their respective children: the doe-eyed child-victim and his obese playmate (who occasions some of the most inspired filth in the book).
This story has the quality of a constellation—as the stars of The Big Dipper only find a form by dint of our forced perspective, so too, the connections between characters are abstract, composed of happenstance. They appear together through no great crisis, no great forced moment. Yet Tower has made what could have been merely anecdotal or abstract deeply satisfying.
When originally published in Harpers, “On the Show” was a much more straightforward first-person descent (narrated by newcomer Jeff Park) into the desperation of the carnival. Tower could easily have left well-enough alone, but didn’t. For whatever encouraging reason, he went back, broke the working compass his narrator had provided, and made the resulting tableau hum. Without that discarded explanatory unity, the story and the carnival simply have to be borne. Nothing comes forward to ease the troubles which made these men and women enter into itinerant sweat-shop contracts with the carnival, and their boredom and unhappiness is harder to for the reader to file away.
In most collections, a carnival would be as strange as things are allowed to get. In this collection, the carnies cede that honor to the title story’s horde of Vikings.
As great an editor as William Maxwell was unnerved and put off by Cheever’s flashes of surrealism. Including Vikings among Tower’s short story Americans deepens the book in a similarly disconcerting way. In strangely modern speech, the reluctant raider Harald tells of how a group of Vikings left their womenfolk behind, rowed to Lindisfarne, perpetuated a gory outrage called a “blood-eagle” on a monk named Naddod, found a wife for lonely Gnut, and returned to a home which can never be safe—for they have made other people’s homes unsafe. It is a marvelous performance from start to finish. The story shuffles between the extreme, the reasonable, and the out-and-out gonzo-odd as Barthelme might—but it is Barthelme without the wink. Like Cheever, Tower plays it straight.
Because “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is built with so little verisimilitude, because Tower eschews in this story the post-marital frustrations of “Brown Coast” or “Down Through the Valley” or the fraternal hatreds of “Retreat,” because Tower keeps tempting the reader to disbelieve in these crazy Vikings, because of this, the story must seem likely in its barest elements—in its broad outlines and in the way it moves. For when it moves, when you catch it out of the corner of your eye, it does resemble exactly what it mocks: a normal story.
Beautifully written, flawlessly constructed, but normal. Introductory first person narration gives way to problem(s) which give way to interlude and incident which pass on to a Grand Guignol set-piece developed by more incident which resolves into a decrescendo before flairing into a heightened final paragraph of beautifully written and genuinely moving pathos. Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” becomes, in this light, not only an enormously successful story but straight-faced, affecting spoof.
What stranger rebellion could there be?
Drew Johnson was raised in Mississippi. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Swink, and StoryQuarterly, and an interview with Lydia Davis recently appeared in Meridian. He lives with his wife in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and is at work on a novel. (8/2009)