Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
By Wells Tower
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 238 pp.
"I'm missing home, bad," Wells Tower confided not long ago in an e-mail, a few days before we talked about his debut collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
By "home" he meant Chapel Hill, where he grew up and owns a house. He dwells in Brooklyn now—well, not exactly now. He was at the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock when we spoke, a stop in his dizzying promotional tour that by spring's end will have taken him to Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia—with a weeklong stopover in the Triangle and innumerable transfers back through New York sandwiched in. "It's been pretty intense," he acknowledged, a background cacophony of what sounded like bar noise crowding his voice.
That's what happens when your first book becomes, by any reasonable measure, the national literary event of the season. Everything Ravaged has earned lavish praise from all corners. The New York Times published a pair of raves, one from the reliably captious staff reviewer Michiko Kakutani and another from the celebrity literary critic Edmund White. The Times added a profile-and-interview feature shortly afterward, and then a personal essay by Tower himself (about his property in Chapel Hill) in its Sunday magazine.
Meanwhile, the book has drawn comparisons to some of the greatest short story writers in American literature (Carver, Cheever, Hemingway, Salinger) and elicited oblique murmurs about the Great American Novel, albeit in short-story form, from Esquire and Slate; the latter reviewer's lead invoked the 19th-century frontier-theory historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Tower has also been gracious about giving interviews, generously answering questions about his writing and revising habits, his influences, his fruitful journalism career, his unusual name, even his kitchen sink. Literally.
So this article is undoubtedly superfluous—except that it gave Tower an opportunity to phone home, a fiber-optic surrogate for actually being here. "I really like the quiet and the space and the breathing room of North Carolina," he pines, immediately after lamenting New York City's "ugliness and rancor"—although there is plenty of both in his stories, and plenty of things about New York that he likes: "Nine months a year in North Carolina and three in New York would be the perfect ratio for me."
But for now he's on the road and away from his routine. "It's very weird to go from that artistic head space [of writing] to being a spokesperson for your book. You have to go out and advocate for it. Having to let weeks go without working is very uncomfortable," says Tower, who normally adheres to a "religious" writing schedule. He hasn't gotten swept up in his sudden literary stardom. "I just try to keep my head down with that."
Taking this publicity break, however, is something he's more than happy to do. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has put plenty of muscle into marketing the book, and it has been published in 12 countries. Having to fly to some of them as a pitchman is "a great problem to have," Tower concedes.
And it's a problem that his writing has earned. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are polished, taut and structurally rigorous, and Tower's sentences are heavily torqued and spring-loaded (Edmund White praised their "tensile strength"). Slash-and-burn revision is plainly evident: Some of the stories were originally published in vastly different form and then completely rewritten—"Retreat" and "The Leopard" even had new narrators installed. "I approach [revision] from a place of really sincere self-hatred," Tower told one interviewer. The result is prose that is sometimes wound almost too tightly for its own good, but it is shrewdly loosened with giddy, well-timed humor and goosed by grotesqueries, often comic, that jar the writing out of its coils and the reader out of the safety of "literariness": They may be polished, but these are stories of ragged lives raggedly lived.
And are they lived here in the Triangle, one can't help but wonder? Although most are set in unspecified locations, Tower speculates that the profuse presence of the natural world in his stories may come from "being out in the North Carolina woods" a lot as a kid. He locates one of the stories, "Wild America," taking place in Duke Forest (a location he renders vividly without naming), and a few others could easily take place in the area.
Yet the pieces aren't definitively Southern: one is set in Greenwich Village, another in medieval Scandinavia, a few others in America's characterless exurbs. And although Tower avows that he has "grotesque impulses in fiction" that can be linked to his fondness for Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O'Connor, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, he has no interest in being a "hushpuppy writer" going on about "donkeys and banjos." The Triangle's peculiar version of Dixie appeals to him. "It's not the Deep South, it's not quite the New South. People don't seem afraid just to kind of live ... at a sane pace, on a sane scale," he says, almost longingly. "The Triangle is in the best sense an indeterminate place," he adds, noting how beneficial indeterminacy is for writers: It contributes to the space and breathing room Tower's been craving. When your writing isn't forced in any one direction by your surroundings (the way it tends to be in, say, New Orleans), you are free to write whatever you will.
Indeed, indeterminacy shadows most of the stories in Everything Ravaged. Tower's characters are usually adrift, a psychic condition manifested in their divagations. They wander into unfamiliar towns and other people's homes, into the woods and up mountains and down into valleys; they join carnivals and lie down in driveways and lose their memories. Tower has an astute eye (and ear) for the mistakes—and the discoveries—ordinary people make when they don't know what to do with themselves.
So the menace and the horror that are integral to Tower's stories—dangerous, predatory strangers and putrescent animals abound in them—would be mere cheap thrills were they not anchored in the best kind of everydayness (to borrow from The Moviegoer, a favorite novel of Tower's, written by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill-educated Walker Percy). It's no surprise that Tower's most enthusiastic words on the phone were about John Cheever, who made extraordinary literature out of the ordinary: His closely observed, sometimes even cloistered stories have an ineffable air of unreality that lifts them to revelatory heights. "There's a huge amount of oxygen in his writing," Tower says. "It would almost seem breezy if you weren't aware of how much control he has over what he's doing."
The same could be said of Tower's best writing, some of which is in the story "Retreat"—which, one can't help noticing, is strongly reminiscent of Cheever's great "Goodbye, My Brother" (an accidental resemblance, Tower says), and contains passages that match Cheever's ability to make compressed prose ariettas by tossing a balloon of thought up in the air and keeping it afloat with buoying flicks of surprising imagery and language that can be either vernacular or formal, with alert, quick humor, and with adroit turns that sustain it past its natural breath (oxygen, indeed), so that it finally lands somewhere improbably far from where it began—or, more improbably, near, its wide, garrulous ambit having circumscribed ample open space before finding its way back:
I [...] have always understood that life is an as-is, no-warranty arrangement, and if you want it to add up to anything, you'd better go at it with fire in your gut. I married young, and I have married often. I bought my first piece of property at eighteen. Now, at forty-two, I've been through two amicable divorces. I've lived and profited in nine American cities. Late at night, when rest won't come and my breathing shortens with the worry that my ambition might have robbed me of some of life's traditional rewards (long closeness, offspring, mature plantings), I take an astral tour of the hundreds of properties that have passed through my hands over the years. Contemplating the small but grateful multitude living in or baking returns off of holdings whose hidden value I was first to spy, the terror eases. Anxiety quits its bagpiper's clasp on my lungs, and I droop, contented, into sleep.
Speaking of thoughts that find their way back to where they began, when will Tower do the same and lay his head at home? "It may not be as soon as I would like," he admits. His house west of Chapel Hill is currently rented out; this summer, he'll go away to do a writing residency so he can work on a novel; and he will teach a fiction workshop at Columbia University in the fall. Meanwhile, he stays focused on his work even as his success in it has made it harder for him to find time for. "I just want to do the best work I can," he says. "Writing is unbelievably hard; it gets harder every day. I have faith that if I keep at it long enough, something will come of it."
Wells Tower has two appearances scheduled in the Triangle: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 30, at the Regulator Bookshop; and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 5, at Quail Ridge Books & Music.
A decade ago, after Wells Tower graduated from Wesleyan University but before he began a master's writing program at Columbia University, he wrote at least three stories for the Independent. Following are excerpts; for the full stories, click the links.
In "Teats, sex and chèvre," an Indy cover story from Oct. 6, 1999, Tower profiled Celebrity Dairy, the goat farm and bed and breakfast in Siler City, N.C.:
Watching Brit, I learned that milking a goat—milking anything, I guess—is no easy task. It involves a lot of teat-pulling and bucket-steadying—not a big deal if you've only got one or two nanny goats on the premises, but if you've got more than 60, as do the Pfanns, you need to rationalize the process. What they've done is bought a pair of chrome milking robots, powerful vacuum-driven milk extractors connected via plastic tubing to five-gallon cans. I watched Brit stick the extractors on the goat teats. They hung there like limpets jerking away until the udder was sufficiently drained. The before and after was quite startling. Pre-milking, a goat udder is a swollen, uncomfortable thing. Post, they're flaccid, sometimes a little wrinkly in the teat and look much more like a fitting accessory for today's active goat. "In the spring," Brit said,"they'll have three times as much milk in them, and their bags are stretched so tightly they shine."
He had to raise his voice to be heard above the systolic pulse of the robots' vacuum drive. I asked Brit how he thought the goats liked being milked by machine. He explained that the milking machine actually simulates the "suck and swallow" M.O. of baby goats. He pulled one of the suckers from a teat and held it out to me. "Put your thumb in there," he said. I did. Indeed, it was sucking and swallowing. To enhance comfort for the suckee, the things have a mouthlike rubber lining that does away with the unpleasant teat-yanking side of the milking equation.
After the milking machine does its thing, Brit told me, it's necessary to do a little hand milking to get the last bit out. I asked him if I could try. He picked out the animal least likely to stomp on my hand and let me—cautiously—go for it. A goat teat feels like a hot boneless finger. You have to grab it where the first knuckle would be in order to pinch off the milk duct. Then you squeeze the milk out with a wrist-twisting motion I was only vaguely able to get the hang of. I pulled far harder than I would have tolerated had they been my teats being pulled, and managed to coax out less than a tablespoon of the white stuff. Sensing dangerous incompetence, Brit stepped into the breach, and with a few quick tugs, it was like the loosing of the Hoover dam.
In "The raw and the cooked" (March 15, 2000), an article about the restaurant Sushi Blues, Tower took careful notes about sushi preparation:
Charles Meteesatien has soft hands. He uses them all day, slicing fish, pressing fish to rice; the oils from the fish and the acids of the sushi vinegar work on his hands in turn, leaving them smooth: no calluses or rough spots. When he fillets a salmon, he keeps his fingers flat against its side as the knife passes through. He pulls the knife along slowly, pausing now and again to be sure the flesh does not tear or bruise. It is an oddly tender sight. When he has cut the skin away and tweezed out the fish's tiny ribs, he slices the fillet into blocks a hand's breadth across and with the uniform thickness of a deck of cards. The piece he sets before a customer is pink and clean and ends in fine angles: It is a very special kind of raw dead fish.
In "More than beer alone" (March 17, 1999), Tower wrote about the regulars at a small biker bar near Cary:
Somebody keeps putting on Jackie Blue by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. My guess is it's the guy with sticky-looking hair playing air guitar and throwing a lot of pelvic motion in the redhead's direction. On the back of his strumming hand, he's got a home-rendered spider-web tattoo, which, I read somewhere, is supposed to signify some dark detail in the wearer's past. He escorts the woman to the bar, working as they walk to narrow the distance between their faces. I think about what will happen with the blond guy if they kiss. She dodges him subtly, but when they return to the pool table, the boyfriend quickly hustles her out the door. The long-haired man looks stricken, and I ask him if he wants to shoot a game of pool. "Rack 'em up," he says. He tells me he's been drinking since 7 that morning, and watching him lean on his pool cue, I believe him. He's sweating steadily, and his body twitches with the constant muscular adjustments required to keep him upright. Nevertheless, he drops seven solids before I've made a single shot. After he sinks the eight ball, he perches on the side of the table and regards me with a puzzled scowl. "Son," he says. "I believe you're trying to hustle me."