Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Wells Tower--Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned--Smoke and Mirrors?

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a debut collection of stories by Wells Tower, was published last week by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Towers got his MFA from Columbia and is a contributing writer for The Washington Post Magazine. He also publishes in Harper’s. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s. He has won a couple of Pushcart Prizes and got a boost when the title story for his first book was included in Ben Marcus’s collection ,The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, 2004. Marcus has called Towers “blindingly brilliant.” He will be doing the bookstore reading route in April and May in Cambridge, Boston, San Francisco, and New York, and will be at the Los Angeles Festival of Books in late April.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned got very good reviews in all the pre-publication places: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal. However, for some reason, the only major newspaper reviews (at least the only ones I can find) were in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. In NY, Kakutani calls him a writer of “uncommon talent” and compares him to David Foster Wallace and Sam Shepard. In L.A., Jim Rutland says he invokes prose that is both “soaring and deep.”

I reviewed the book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I have been reviewing rather regularly for the past few years. I guess my review was what they called “mixed.” I enjoyed the book as a general reader but had reservations about it as a professional reader. Does that make sense? Maybe that’s just elitist. I will quote you my first and last paragraph and then try to explain in more detail.

“I gotta tell you. I had fun reading these stories. I laughed out loud eight times during the first one, “The Brown Coast,” and had a silly smile on my face throughout most of them.
The title story is about a bunch of grunts who hump a vicious attack on a small island. But, get this. They aren’t modern army grunts; they just sound that way. They are Vikings, man! When they finally get back home, the main character is glad to be with his wife, but he knows that they could also get attacked, and he lies awake at night listening for the sound of men with swords rowing toward his home. Heavy, man, heavy.
Yeah, I had fun reading these stories, but I have this uneasy feeling I’ll hate myself in the morning.”

I know--a little heavy on the sarcasm. But the title story seemed to be asking for it.

Most of the stories, except for the tour-de-force title piece, as both Kakutani and Rutland point out, are fairly conventional in terms of character and plot. Here are the familiar down-and-out guys engaged in mostly ineffectual efforts to get it back together. One tries to put to create something beautiful out of the creatures he finds in the tide pools, but a thing that looks like it came out of a sewer poisons them all. One buys a mountaintop in hopes of selling chunks as hunting escape hatches for wealthy guys, but when he shoots a huge moose, its flesh is bloated and rotten.

What makes the stories fun is Tower’s humorous observations and one-liners. It’s hard to resist a book that begins with: “Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.” Or a book that ends with a soldier who has witnessed horrors, fearing for his new family, because he now knows “how terrible love can be.” He ruminates, “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself… You wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.”

I enjoyed these stories, but I did not like them, or rather I did not like myself for enjoying them. I know that all writers, at least if they are any good, try to have their way with me. They use all sorts of games and gimmicks, stylistic flourishes and character configurations to lure me in and keep me there until the end. If that is all they want—to keep me reading—then I can be a sucker for their tricks. But then, what am I left with? It’s not that I want to learn anything. I just want to feel I have got a glimpse of what makes human beings so damned wonderfully mysterious. Is that asking too much?

I just have this feeling that Wells Tower is mostly smoke and mirrors and little or no depth. Don't get me wrong. When it comes to choosing between style and content, I come down on the side of style usually. But for me, it has to be style that explores something, reveals something--not just to get a reaction.

I could use some help there from those of you out there who have read Wells Tower. If you don’t have the book, “On the Show” is in the May 2007 issue of Harper’s and “Leopard” is in the Nov. 10, 2008 issue of The New Yorker. And if you have the Ben Marcus book, the title story is right up front—in between a George Saunders and an A. M. Holmes.

Sometimes I review books that I think are just ordinary and later find out that most everyone else thinks they are terrific. Such things don’t make me doubt myself; it’s just that I don’t understand what the fuss is about. Take a look at reader reviews of this book on Amazon.com. And take a look at what several other bloggers are saying about it, especially that rigged title story. Let me know what you think.


Lee said...

Everybody and his cousin are called brilliant these days, but I'll have a look ... after I recover from the genuine brilliance of Nabokov's Spring in Fialta, which I'm rereading for the third time in as many days.

Lee said...

Here's a link to another review of the Towers collection which I just happened to stumble across:


rls said...

great review. i couldn't agree more about the hollowed out feeling of stories rich in pyrotechnics, but poor in emotional gravity. that's always been one of my problems with TC Boyle, whom i'm currently rereading since he's visiting our campus next week.

and this is also one of the reasons i loved being a student in your class. the stories you had us read were emotionally dynamic and insightful, rather than serving as an acrobatic act by the writer.

Bryan Wang said...

Rolf pointed me to this site a few months ago, and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the work you're doing here. Thoughtful, and thought-provoking stuff. Thanks so much!

- Bryan Wang

Lee said...

I'm not entirely convinced by Leopard, partly because I agree that the characterisations are rather conventional - mean stepfather; misunderstood, seething, unpopular-at-school preteen. The addition of the leopard is the one effective element, though I'm not entirely sure that it's not marred by the connection suggested between the animal and the boy by their spots, i.e. in the boy's case, pimples. This feels like an attempt at black humour which doesn't quite come off, especially when you consider the 'hamburger' above the boy's upper lip.

But the most serious failing in the story is, as far as I'm concerned, one of voice. The boy too often speaks as author. For example: 'You are eleven years old, the age that our essences begin revealing themselves, irremediably, to us and to the world.' Or: 'Your hatred of your stepfather is all-consuming and unceasing, but this is only because your world is still small, and your stepfather assumes an outsized significance in the story of your life.' (In fact, an eleven-year-old is much more likely to think his own world is huge and all-important.) The first quotation especially may through its very disconnect be intended as comic - perhaps something the boy has overheard? - but it grates on me.

Lee said...

Perhaps I should add that I'm willing to give Tower credit for deliberately structuring his second-person voice as simultaneously boy and author, given the choice of vocabulary sometimes used -'septum,' for example. And of course there's the distancing created by the use of second-person itself. But it still seems uneven and not quite effective to me.

What does anyone else think?

Charles E. May said...

Lee, I took another look at "Leopard" and I agree that the pov is quite mixed. It seems to me that the pov of a kid is difficult to pull off. For example, Joyce's wonderful story "Araby" seems to work because Joyce manages to put me in the mind of the boy at the same time that he puts me in the mind of the adult remembering the boy that he was--no easy thing to do. I don't think that Tower does so well. To stay completely with the kid loses perspective, but to stay completely with the adult loses immediacy. I agree with you that the pov shift in the story is from the kid to the author, not the kid to the adult the kid becomes.

Lee said...

Hi Charles,

I'll go reread Araby soon; it's been a long while!

Here's a link to a podcast of Tower reading the story Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, which might interest your other readers to listen to or download (MP3 format):

Lee said...

I keep coming back to this post, because I think it speaks very much to some of my own concerns at the moment - stylistic flourishes which may simply be a smokescreen for lack of real depth. I like very much the way you put this:

'I just want to feel I have got a glimpse of what makes human beings so damned wonderfully mysterious. Is that asking too much?I just have this feeling that Wells Tower is mostly smoke and mirrors and little or no depth. Don't get me wrong. When it comes to choosing between style and content, I come down on the side of style usually. But for me, it has to be style that explores something, reveals something--not just to get a reaction.'

And I keep coming back to what James Wood says: style must 'incarnate meaning'.