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.
- ▼ 2009 (14)