Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is technically the debut book by Wells Tower, but the American writer is far from new to the literature world. He’s a frequent contributor of journalism to high-profile publications like Harper’s and the Washington Post, and these nine stories have all been previously published in various magazines since 2001. So calling Tower’s collection a literary breakthrough would be as misleading as, say, the Guardian giving Alex Ross, a staff writer for The New Yorker, the First Book Award for The Rest Is Noise in 2007.
Greenhorn or no, Tower has made quite a splash with Everything Ravaged in the scant few weeks it’s been in stores. And on one level, it’s not hard to see why: these are lean, confident stories written in what Michael Chabon’s glowing blurb describes as “authentic American vernacular.” Indeed, Tower’s subject is overwhelmingly the modern, urban American male, who is frustrated with society’s restraints and often milking the pain of past mistakes. His characters make rash, emotional leaps of faith to reconnect with their families and their lost youth — and when that doesn’t work, they turn, a little too quickly, to violence.
The problem is that the stories barely ever deviate from this strict formula, and too often end up retreading a select few narrative trails. In “Retreat,” a successful real estate agent invites his struggling artist brother to a mountainside cabin for the weekend, and they get in a fight. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a man’s stepmother and dementia-impaired father come visit him in New York, and they get in a fight. In “On the Show,” a man moves to Florida to unwind at his new stepfather’s estate, and they get in a fight. There’s hardly a piece here that doesn’t involve an ill-thought-out family reunion, a disastrous rural retreat, or both.
Tower also has a tendency to reiterate his symbolism in a way that’s a little too on the nose. In “The Brown Coast,” for example, about a man who starts filling an empty aquarium with exotic found ocean life after his wife leaves him, it’s this: “Had he been born a sea creature … he’d probably have been family to this sea cucumber, built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near.” Well-phrased? Undoubtedly. But attentive readers already saw the parallel.
Still, there are plenty of nice moments, and the stories that veer furthest off the defined path are also the most rewarding. “Retreat” has a well-timed reversal, where the real estate agent is slowly revealed to be not only morally smug but also a raving hypocrite, chastising his brother’s living conditions when there’s sawdust and exposed insulation all over his supposedly idyllic country getaway. “Wild America” tells a similar story of angst and retribution but from a teenage girl’s perspective, and the weird and wonderful title story jumps a few millennia into the past to shine a light on a group of slacker Vikings.
One female character sums up the collection’s central dynamic when she tells two brawling men, her son and her new husband, “You’re both barbarous idiots, as far as I’m concerned.” Tower, on the other hand, is neither of those things. Despite his credentials, Everything Ravaged reads exactly like a debut, with all the mild disappointment and promise of future successes that term so often connotes.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 256 pp, $30, hardcover
(review originally appeared in SEE Magazine, May 21, 2009)