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.