May 2009

Elizabeth Gumport

Hey Shorty

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Bleak, sad, violent, rugged, grotesque: these are the adjectives that have been applied to Wells Tower’s ecstatically praised debut story collection. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned has been celebrated for its brutality and Tower for his fearless representation of a particularly American, particularly male strain of hopelessness. According to The Daily Beast, “Wells Tower writes short stories for men -- real men, guys who could kill dinner if they had to, guys who savor a solid sentence about engine-repair.”

His stories, many of which feature men who inflict or endure violence, have been lauded as things that must be endured themselves. He hits us with despair, these reviewers say, and we can take the punch. Tower’s fiction has become a test of one’s manhood: those who appreciate it are “real men;” everyone else is a wuss.

While these aggressive misreadings -- and they are misreadings -- tell us little about Tower’s fiction, they nevertheless indicate a good deal about the conditions of America’s literary culture. Two of the most celebrated books in recent years -- Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke -- have been praised in much the same way as Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. They are “brutal,” they are “haunting,” and they are largely about men doing the work of men.

Men doing the work of men is also the primary concern of the post-catastrophe novel, recent examples of which include Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. As Chad Harbach discussed in a recent issue of n+1, these novels are lined with “nostalgia for a "simpler" past.” When the oil is gone and the cities have burned to the ground, we will return to what are considered the purer, more natural ways of the past.

The average post-catastrophe novel is more likely than not to have been written by a man, and to feature all-male societies, or societies that divide work along traditional gender lines. When the world ends, men will once again be men. Simply to stay alive, men will have to wield weapons and work the land themselves; no longer will governments, or cities, or keyboards, obstruct physical contact with the tools necessary to create or end lives. The question of what it means to be a man will at last have a simple answer: you do the work, or you die. The reward for surviving the apocalypse is authenticity.

Until then, however, manhood must be proven by celebrating it in others. To say Tower is fearless is to confirm one’s own fearlessness, and one’s capacity -- or at least respect -- for the work of “real men.” What is masculine is good, and now, or so the reception of Tower’s book indicates, what is good is masculine.

Tower himself seems bewildered by such readings of his work. In an interview on this site, he expressed surprise his characters were considered “exceptionally ugly or cruel” by reviewers. “Being a human being,” he told the New York Observer, “isn’t just all misery and despair. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy.” To pick out what is irredeemable in the world is as facile and in its own way as sentimental as rooting out only what is comforting. Communicating the brutal, unpleasant parts of life is as simple as firing a gun: it requires a lot of anger but only a little skill.

In his stories, Tower displays little anger and great skill. Like John Cheever, whom he has cited as an influence and whose stories are often reduced by critics and fans alike to caustic satire, Tower has not been given enough credit. There is pain, he tells, and loss, but enduring through it all is the world, wild and beautiful.

He excels, as Cheever does, at rendering the familiar foreign. Many of his stories feel fantastic, as if they are set in an America slightly more magical than our own. But they are not: Tower does not invent new worlds, but instead lays bare the magic so often overlooked in our own. “On The Show,” for example, begins with a description of a traveling carnival; birds alight in an oak, and “the tree moves with a white restlessness of egrets stowing and unstowing their overlong wings.” In the next paragraph, a lizard’s skin “goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.” Plant to animal, animal to plant: the world, vast and enchanted, is one. What he offers us is not life fragmented but life made astonishingly whole.

“On The Show,” which is perhaps the most pitiless story of the collection, is structured around the search for a child molester at a traveling carnival. What is terrifying is not simply the fact of the assault, or the fact that a predator lurks among the rides and games, but that at one point or another every single man in the story appears guilty. We watch as first one character, and then another, wanders away at a suspicious moment, or admires a striking young boy. They are not the culprit, we learn, but they are not untouched by the impulses that move him, and there are dark places in all our hearts. But similar is not the same, and so Tower reminds us to be generous: how easy it is to think the worst of someone, and how wrong we often are.

The story is divided into twenty sections, each several paragraphs long. In the tenth -- the center of the piece, the halfway point around which everything else is arranged -- a blind woman boards the Pirate Ship, a ride that, at its zenith, suspends passengers upside down. Aboard the ship, held weightless in midair, the blind woman “smiles as though she’s just recalled the answer to a question worrying her for a long time.” Watching her, the ride attendant “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,” and this is the story’s own zenith, the glorious moment between the terrifying ascent and the disappointing descent. Beset on all sides by cruelty and disappointment, joy persists.

In “Retreat” -- a story that owes much to Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” -- so, too, do hope and sympathy persevere. The narrator and his brother find each other difficult to forgive, or even to be around, and as in Cheever’s story, their disagreement is to some degree aesthetic. Stephen, the narrator tells us, is “big on piety and sacrifice and letting you know what fine values he’s got. As far as I can tell, these values consist of little more than eating ramen noodles by the case, getting laid once every fifteen years or so, and arching his back at the sight of people like me -- that is, people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores.” When the narrator finds Stephen sitting in a ditch in the rain, he suspects “he’d arranged himself in the ditch to present me with a picture of the utmost misery when I pulled up.” If their misery derives from the distance between them, the distance between derives, to some degree, from the one’s choice to see the world as miserable, and to fashion himself into a representation of such misery, and the other’s resistance to such ugliness.

Tower allies himself with neither extreme. We cannot bully the world into being perfect -- bad meat cannot be wished good -- but we cannot deny what loveliness there is, either. Try as those manly reviewers might, the point will not be missed; beauty endures, forgiveness is possible, and it is these bright, generous moments that Tower cherishes. “Ours isn’t the kind of brotherhood I would wish on other men,” the narrator tells us, “but we are blessed with a single, simple gift: in these rare moments of happiness, we can share joy as passionately and single-mindedly as we do hatred.” Despite all the forces aligned against it, happiness happens. Out on the lake, with the birch trees fine against the sky and the swallows winging close above the water, the narrator tells us, “I felt dead to it, though I did take a kind of comfort that all of this beauty was out here, persisting like mad, whether you hearkened to it or not.” The world can be good, and there is nothing we can do about it.