Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

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This collection of short stories by Wells Tower is mostly about men trying to give their lives a reboot by reconnecting with family, or by proving to themselves that there is still simplicity and beauty in life. Most of the male characters are divorced, and the women they encounter serve as, if not antagonists, but as catalyst characters who help derail what may be the main character’s final trip down the track to redemption. But this is too simple a treatment of the stories, and the characters are much more complex.

The string of male-focused tales are broken up by “Leopard” and “Wild America” which have an eleven year-old boy and two teenage girls as their characters, respectively. Tower inhabits these character types as easily as he does the men because he writes about human nature and not the particulars of a characters’ gender or age.

Control is an important theme in the collection: who has it, who’s lost it, who has it but doesn’t want it. The boy in “Leopard” butts heads with his controlling step-father and envisions an encounter with an escaped leopard as an escape of his own. In “Wild America,” the contrasting metamorphoses of two cousins from girls into their adult forms, as one who is beautiful and one who is not, show us why the world will forever be divided into the haves and have-nots. Finally, he tells the sweet story of an eighty year-old man, in the process of losing his freedom to a nursing home, who decides it is time for one more adventure to the mysterious apartment across the street that is a reputed whorehouse.

This book is loaded with gems. The stories are heavy with them, and you can dig into any page and scope them up by the handful. The mark of a good writer is the ability to describe common things in unique ways, like a human face. At some point, every writer must describe how a female character looks. In “Executors of Important Energies,” Tower describes one like this:

She had the kind of hungry, large-eyed prettiness around which Japanese cartoonists have established whole religions of lechery.

The reader should know that this woman looks like the ideal of anime porn enthusiasts who want to watch young innocence defiled in hardcore ways, but within the unreal context of a cartoon which makes it ok in their minds.

In “Down Through the Valley” he writes:

She was molten in my bed, but she also suffered depressions that were very dear to her.

This woman enjoys her drama and funk when she’s sad. Who doesn’t?

The story “Wild America” contains what I think is his best work:

Jacy was alone, woozy and heart-swollen in the downtown, wandering wet streets that gleamed as you would have them gleam in the sweet summer film of your life.

Sweet writing.

The best thing I can say about this book is that I started keeping a pencil with me to mark passages I liked, which I rarely do. The book is heavy with pencil markings.

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