Monday, 23 March 2009


Of all the writers featured on The Roving Editor, Wells Tower is the name that attracts most visitors to the blog, thanks to a brief post back in November. This augurs well for the success of his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which is shortly to be published on both sides of the Atlantic.

If I were asked to identify the qualities in Wells Tower's writing that make reading these stories such a rewarding experience, I would say that what impresses me most is the depth of his characterisation and the freshness of his language. The essence of good short story writing is economy, and in the same way that Picasso could conjure life from the simplest of lines, Tower has the gift of creating flesh and blood people out of a handful of words.

And what well-chosen words they are. Take this pen-picture of the narrator's father, abandoned by his much younger lover, in 'Executors of Important Energies': 'My father felt astonished in his grief -- pushing fifty, the silver tufts bursting from his ears, to find his heart broken for the first time in his life. That was the one time he tried hard to be my friend. He had me over on weekends. He'd tell me love was like the chicken pox, a thing to be got through early because it could really kill you in your later years.'

This quote also hints at a trait shared by many of Tower's protagonists: a sense of humour and self-knowledge in the face of adversity. In one of the best stories in the book, the carnival-set 'On the Show', there is a rare moment of tenderness between the new attendant on a ride called the Pirate Ship and one of his customers, a blind woman: 'The ride ends, and Jeff goes to her and helps her down the platform. She is warm against him, and cannot stop laughing. "Thank you, thanks very much," she says, and Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.'

Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Tower as a comic writer, for all the bleakness of the lives and landscapes he depicts. The comedy is there in the grotesque tableau of a man obliged to void his dog's bladder using a kind of Heimlich manoeuvre ('Retreat'); in the uneasy conversation between a violent man and his ex-wife's hippy lover, suddenly thrown together on a road-trip ('Down Through the Valley'); and, most flamboyantly of all, in the Pythonesque but ultimately poignant title story, an everyday tale of marauding Vikings who speak in modern American: 'A hydra flew in last night and ran off with Rolf Hierdal's sheep. We can't be putting up with this shit. It comes down to pride, is what it comes down to.'

Uncomfortable encounters and strained relationships are something of a Tower speciality, as are sudden explosions of violence. All of these elements are present in 'On the Show', which for me is the key story in the collection. Its fairground setting seems a perfect metaphor for the desire for thrills and transcendence that drives the characters in the stories, a desire that the gaudy rides can only satisfy fleetingly before disappointment takes hold again. Jeff Park has an assignation with a girl with a fondness for phosphorescent candy whom he meets on the Pirate Ship. She doesn't show. Eventually he tracks her down: 'He goes to her quickly, puts his hand on her shoulder, and pulls her toward him, hard enough that her head jerks back. People turn. Her jaw hangs wide and pretty, but the light in her mouth has gone out.'

I could go on, but the main point of this blog is to direct readers to the work itself. You can whet your appetite for the book by sampling two of the stories online: 'Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned' and 'Wild America'. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


The Guardian Review has an excellent, thought-provoking essay by Salman Rushdie on the subject of literary adaptation. Rushdie's contention is that the aim of any such enterprise – whether it is the translation of a poem or the transfer of a novel to film – should be to capture the essence of the original work. Slavish "fidelity" to the source material is both misguided and futile, hence his apparent respect for what he describes as the "creatively savage" approach taken by Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 2002 film.

However Rushdie also wishes to examine the notion of adaptation in its broadest sense. To do so, he says, "is to see that all the meanings of the word deal with the question of what is essential – in a work adapted to another form, in an individual adapting to a new home, in a society adapting to a new age. What do you preserve? What do you jettison? What is changeable, and where must you draw the line? The questions are always the same, and the way we answer them determines the quality of the adaptation, of the book, the poem, or of our own lives."

In the course of the article, Rushdie reveals that he is working on a screenplay of Midnight's Children, which is to be directed by Deepa Mehta. It will be fascinating to hear his further thoughts on the adaptation process once this project comes to fruition.


Barney Rosset, legendary New York publisher, is the subject of Obscene, a documentary film released in the UK this week. View the trailer here, and read a New York Times feature here.

Though Rosset relinquished Grove Press some years ago, he is still Editor in Chief of the Evergreen Review, which made its first appearance in 1957. The magazine now publishes most of its content online, and there are several short stories by new writers in the current issue.