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Farrar, Straus & Giroux • Available now
In his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
, Wells Tower paints a fragmented portrait of domestic upheaval and uneasy reconciliation. Peopling his darkly humorous, deadpan stories with estranged husbands and senile fathers, neglectful caregivers and aimless children, Tower explores the inadequacy of familial relationships and the anxiety provoked by ever-present yet inscrutable threats to one’s safety and happiness. A leopard stalks the woods outside a young boy’s home. A rapist lurks around a traveling carnival. A group of malcontent Vikings enact a brutal raid on a peaceful island village out of sheer boredom.
The tension rarely breaks the surface of the stories, but rather (with a nod to the grotesqueries of the Southern Gothic) manifests itself in the physical degradation of the collection’s cast of psoriasis-ridden, pimpled misfits. In “Executors of Important Energies,” a young man’s young stepmother becomes the sole provider for her rapidly degenerating husband. Our first image of her is of “…her sparse, dry hair, her mottled cheeks… her right eye… bloodshot and brimming with brine.” We meet a predatory hiker with a severely scarred arm in “Wild America,” and a child with a knack for lying who wakes up with a fungal infection on his lip in “Leopard.” It’s emotional poverty made visible, internal conflict inescapably displayed on the body.
It is this threat from within that comes to define the collection. For Tower’s characters are not only at odds with wildcats and menacing strangers. Ultimately, they struggle against their own worse impulses, their own cruelty. It’s a conflict most clearly expressed in the title story. A cadre of cynical marauders are party to a raid on a nearby village. Unimpressed by their younger, enthusiastic counterparts, the veterans still watch unfazed as a monk is subjected to what is inventively known as a “blood eagle,” and local daughters are swept away for brides. “…I got an understanding of how terrible love can be,” muses the narrator, once retired from his life of pillaging. “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.”