Title: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
Author: Wells Tower
Rating: 3 stars
I usually like short story collections a lot. Like a lot a lot. Especially when they have a running theme and are fitted together seamlessly like Dancing Girls (Atwood) or In Our Time (Hemingway) or Close Range (Proulx). So, I was a little disappointed by this collection. I’ve read a couple of Wells Tower‘s stories in The New Yorker, and really enjoyed them. He equally balances the absurd and the sad without beating you over the head with depressing-ness (like Annie Proulx tends to do).
I #lovelovelove the story “Leopard,” which appears in the middle of the collection. I’d read it before in The New Yorker (You can read it here) and loved it then. It’s about a little kid who fakes sick to stay home from school. His step dad–a royal bastard–knows he’s faking it and makes him pick up the mail. The mailbox is quite a ways away since they live in the country and the kid has this inner monologue about how it’s so unfair that his “almost a psychopath” step-dad would be so insensitive as to let his “sick” step-son walk half a mile to pick up the mail. Then he has this great idea of pretending to pass out on the road so his mom will find him there and feel really bad. Anyway, a police man shows up and everything gets SUPER tense. The whole story is this dramatic build-up. I kept thinking WHEN is the step-dad going to snap and attack the kid with that axe??
The other story that I liked a lot was “Retreat” about two brothers that sort of hate each other, but it all seems to be because of one misunderstanding after another since childhood. The older brother buys some land out in the boonies and invites the younger one to come hangout with him. He’s trying to get the younger one to invest in the property so that they can turn it for a profit. Then they kill a diseased moose, which is kind of a metaphor for their entire relationship.
The other stories in the book share common themes of divorce, heart-break, retreat from society, and a desire to reconnect with nature. The stories all have male protagonists and just sort of end without obvious conclusion. They are simply slice-of-life and I LOVE that.
Then, out of now where, the collection ends with “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” It’s set in a different time when people live in huts and tents and fight neighboring tribes. This story features a protagonist who is married and very much in love with his wife (the total opposite of any other character in the collection!). In the story, another man finds a woman to love and marry. All of a sudden we go from totally emotionally effed up men escaping relationships through retreat to emotionally stable men who are eager to return home to their wives and domestic life. Plus, it has a conclusive, reflective ending.
Way to throw us off your scent Mr. Wells Tower!
Anyway, this is a pretty good collection, but I thought the stories could have been more cohesive. I mean Proulx’s Close Range will the depress the hell out of you, but at least she’s consistent.