Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
 by Wells Tower

Picador USA
2009, Paperback
First collection

Awards: shortlisted, 2009 Cork City-Frank O'Connor Short Story Award

Wells Tower's short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories and The Washington Post Magazine. He received the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review and two Pushcart Prizes. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is his first book.

"Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, aged six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk… my friends laughed until they wept."

Reviewed by Daniela Norris

Wells Tower is not new to publishing – the impressive list of previous publications can turn the face of every budding writer green with envy. However, it is worth remembering that what makes good writing is not just the skilled weaving of words (which Tower does brilliantly) but also material that feels as if it has been lurched from the bottom of one’s soul.

Tower explores relationships: within the family, of one within their selves, of one with their neighbours and friends. Our civilization, both real and fictionalized, appears to provide Tower with endless material and raw, fresh points of view.
Bob explained what it took to build a staircase, how you’ve got to cut each rise on the stringers exactly the same height, even a sixteenth-inch difference and people will stumble.

    ‘I don’t know why, but I cut a stair in the middle to six inches instead of eight, just my my brain went on the fritz. Then the old man whose house it was came by to see the job. He was going down those stairs, and wham, he fell and landed at the bottom with a broken leg. After that, a lawyer went over with a tape measure and that was it, pretty much.’

  ‘That’s what I’m talking about,’ said Claire. ‘Only in America does somebody get rich of being too dumb to walk stairs.’

  ‘I didn’t feel real hot about it,’ said Bob. ‘That bone was sticking out pretty good.’

Claire shrugged with her face. ‘even so.’
(from The Brown Coast)

Wells Tower’s characters are real people; they could easily be you, me or our next door neighbour. But by the time Tower finishes with them, their colors are brighter, their words sharper, their guts laid bare for the reader to inspect.
My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear. I was not even through with my soup when she came out, very excited, with a stack of photographs. She had them in a plastic Baggie so they’d be safe even in a flood. What was in those pictures she needed to be so careful about? Somebody lying dead in the street in front of Charlotte’s apartment, shot in his chest, a black man about eighteen years old.

   ‘See, Dad? Right in here? See the blood dripping out of his mouth? That’s how fresh he was when I found him.’

   ‘So what?’ I told her. ‘It’s a dead man. Do I know him? There’s not enough terrible stuff around, I have to look at this?’

But my daughter was so excited about her photos, she made me go through every single one, all the way until we hit the pictures where the police and ambulance drivers arrived and spoiled her angle with their barricades.

  ‘After here it’s no good,’ she said, pulling down her mouth. ‘You can’t see anything. They blocked me out before I could actually see rigor mortis.’”
(from Door in Your Eye)

Why do people do some of the things they do? What are their motivations? Tower does not explain, but he focuses on the screeching wheels inside people’s minds; he takes his readers on a journey to the hell that some people live in every day, inside their own heads – and to the one they sometimes take other people thorough.
It is nearly one o’clock, the hour when your mom comes home for lunch. You do not want to be alone in the house with your stepfather. It still angers you that he has sent you down the driveway on your sick day, your special day of rest. You take a dozen steps, and then a plan suggests itself. Very carefully, you litter the mail in a haphazard fan on the driveway gravel so that it looks as though it were dumped there suddenly. You ease yourself down into a tire rut, splaying your arms and legs in the attitude of someone stricken by a fainting spell. When your mother’s car swings into the drive, she will find you there. She may have to stand on the brakes to keep from running you over, but you are far enough up the driveway that you don’t think she could hit you by mistake. She’ll come to you crying and concerned. You’ll let her coax it out of you, the story of how your stepfather made you get the mail.
Brace yourself for a few days of soul-searching while you read this brilliant debut collection. Wells Tower provides the magnifying glass; all you have to do is look through it into other people’s minds and recognize in them fragments of your own.

Listen to the title story from this collection on the Guardian Books Podcast

Daniela Norris is a former diplomat, turned writer. She is the author of numerous award-winning short stories, articles and co-author of Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide, out in May 2010. She is also a book reviewer on World Radio Switzerland's Bookmark program.

Daniela's other Short Reviews: Lynne Patrick (ed) "Criminal Tendencies"

Dede Crane "The Cult of Quick Repair"

Alexandra Leggat "Animal"

"Tales of the Decongested Vol 2"

David Eagleman "Sum: Tales from the Afterlives"

J. Robert Lennon "Pieces for the Left Hand"

Dylan Landis "Normal People Don't Live Like This"
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J Robert Lennon "Pieces for the Left Hand"

David Eagleman "Sum"

Dede Crane "The Cult of Quick Repair"

What other reviewers thought:

New York Times

New York Mag

Fiction Writers Review



The Independent

Times Online

Guardian (Short Story Round Up)