Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux - March 2009
    ISBN: 0374292191, 256 pages, $24 (hardcover)

In his debut collection of short stories, Wells Tower does not deem himself fit to resolve the problems of his characters, demonstrating his understanding of the human way of life. His protagonists are in no way admirable, particularly smart, or stunningly attractive. They are cheating spouses, battling brothers, runaway children, and, most importantly, they are indeed real people.

Tower throws away the movie-star ending to peek—and that's all each story is, a peek—into the life as it is currently being lived. What Tower excels at is making the banal interesting: the stories, save for the titular piece about Vikings making their rounds of raping and pillaging (something which, come to think of it, can be thought as American), are invitations into lives that we somehow already know. Tower artfully depicts Middle America, focusing Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in the homes and backyards of your neighbors.

There is, of course, the tension of normality—the boredom, despair, and listlessness with living in a small town, a big city, the backwoods. Meals cooked, cans of beer consumed, violence and climax, but never a resolution. The glimpses into the lives of Tower's characters are that of a passenger's view on a train: a streaming glance into a scene as the railcar speeds past. There is never an end result, partially because Tower feels free, and rightfully so, to leave out the big picture.

Each story progresses, the reader gets a sense of the action, and then it ends, nearly mid-sentence. Tower is a master of language, knowing the right words to highlight a young boy's disdain for his stepfather, or amplify a monotonous repetition of everyday life. In giving us these stories without true resolutions, it seems as if Tower is saying that even he, the master of his characters' destinies, would not even attempt to choose their fates. He leaves them in confusion because, well, that's just the way it is.