Miami Herald // Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Here’s a review that got rejected by The Believer, but the Miami Herald was nice enough to run (after some much needed editing). My editor there, the great Connie Ogle, has an excellent blog that I’d like you to see.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Wells Tower. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $24.
The best stories in this sparkling debut collection employ a sort of emotional bait and switch. Tower’s language is so precise, so funny, that you’ll find yourself laughing and then, after some reflection, come to realize that the situation isn’t actually all that amusing.

The Brown Coast opens with: ”Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.” These sentences appeal to many different emotions in a short span of time. Despite the obvious and too-easy potty humor — or maybe because of it — the rhetoric here is extremely smoove. (There’s no better way to describe this book than “smoove.”)

There are nine stories here, and had the subtitle With Love and Squalor not already been used by J.D. Salinger, it would have been appropriate for any of them. The prose often flip-flops over a sentence or two from hilarious to melancholy and back again. On the surface, these stories are about less-than-sympathetic characters who drink too much (Retreat, The Brown Coast), suffer through disintegrating marriages (Down through the Valley, The Brown Coast again), and try to make nice with horrendously difficult stepparents (Leopard, Executors of Important Energies). Tower’s ability to hint at things below the surface accounts for the immense joy these stories bring.

In Down through the Valley, a man named Ed agrees to make a long drive to an ashram where his estranged wife and daughter are living with a creepy-ager named Barry. Barry has injured his ankle and can’t drive himself home. Their roadtrip is, understandably, rife with tension and petty jealousies. ”You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover,” Tower writes, ”without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up.” The journey, not surprisingly, doesn’t end well.

The best story here is Retreat, about a man who invites his music-therapist brother to visit the remote mountain he wants to develop into a series of homes for lonely, single men. A heartbreaking aside about the brother’s efforts to care for an elderly, bladder-compromised collie concludes with the notion that “it seemed to me that someone regularly seen by the roadside, hand-juicing a half-dead dog was not the man you’d flock to for lessons on how to be less out-your-mind.”

This image might be terribly sad, but we can’t help laughing. And then we feel bad for laughing and start to wonder if just maybe we’re terrible human beings for finding something amusing about the awful situations these poor characters (and sometimes their pets) are in. We’re awkward and uncomfortable, and yet we’re still laughing. I can’t tell if these stories are tragic or comic, but what makes Tower’s writing so impressive is that in all cases it insists on the both/and instead of the either/or.