Friday, October 2, 2009

Slow and Steady Burn

Book Review / New Fiction

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

Reviewed by Sarah F. Cox

Wells Tower’s first book captures families layered thick with misfortunes beyond their control. Dysfunctional characters led by poor judgment, immaturity and the slow steady boil of deeply repressed emotions rising to the surface describe the tyranny of emotional attachment in this collection of nine short stories, Everything Ravaged Everything Burned, published earlier this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Each story presents a different uncomfortable, yet relatable setting in which relatives and strangers collide, often disastrously. A disgruntled ex husband drives his ex wife’s injured lover on a long car trip. A demented father, his much younger second wife, and an alienated son have dinner with the chess-playing hustler they picked up in the park. In a remote cabin, a jealous and insecure investor coaxes his fiscally conservative brother into discussing a real estate gamble.

Towers gets at the fundamentally sinister underbelly of familial ties with an entourage of irksome people doing things you can’t condone. What’s simultaneously frustrating and brilliant about this collection of misfits and schemers is how well you come to understand, sympathize with, and even justify their self-destructive and damaging behavior. Towers ability to simmer sympathetic and lamentable characters until they boil over as raging assholes is so artful and realistic that he somehow convinces you not only not to hate these people, but that you’d probably act just as irrationally as they do. In fact, the Viking warrior in the final story encapsulates the collections’ attitude towards its characters: 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. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.”

The increasing tension makes for a compelling read, even as you cringe thinking about what might unfold. Though most of Tower’s stories build obviously and gradually towards destruction (as should be no surprise given the title of the book) the conclusions are never trite or overplayed. The string of irrational and ill-conceived decisions often carry you through the story until it ends abruptly, just short of the subsequent remorse and regret. Escaping the scene of catastrophe at the crucial moment, you almost feel guilty for leaving behind the mess in which you’ve become so invested. But, of course, when it comes to sticky family situations outside your own, it’s best not to meddle.