The phrase “well-crafted” suggests an unfortunate analogy between a piece of fiction and a piece of furniture. And there is a surprising amount of fiction around that is reasonably accomplished and graceful, or strikingly ornamented, or that skillfully reproduces previous successes in structure or tone and yet feels synthetic and inert—made up, in short, rather than like something that has been transcribed from a revelatory vision.
That cannot be said of Wells Tower’s wonderful first collection of short fiction, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories are indeed solid and polished; in fact, they’re conspicuously artful, but proficiency—obviously a sine qua non of any good work—and finesse are irritating only when they substitute for soul, and this book seems to have come forth from a deep, disruptive source. The stories live and breathe with purpose.
Elements of the book will be familiar. We find men and women who struggle to maintain themselves but slip through classes—downward; people whose lives and fates are opaque and bewildering to them though the general outlines of these lives and fates could be discerned by a stranger on the street; and in both exposition and dialogue there is an improvisatory elegance of diction, a specifically American bounce.
It might be felt that characters in disarray and their speech have been overrepresented in contemporary American fiction, so, lest the above description stay your hand at the bookstore, let me hasten to say first that these stories are set in a wide world, and second that the book is not yet one more writer’s dutiful trudge through the transgressive. Even the most damaged of Tower’s characters are seen in natural light and ordinary scale, rather than as monumental outcasts on a stage under romanticizing or sensationalizing spotlights; Tower’s characters aren’t copies of anything, they conform to no formulae, the world they live in is the one we live in, and we encounter them, thanks to the author’s skill and conviction, as only one particular writer could offer them up.
Tower presents an exceptionally lucid and persuasive view of the complex mechanisms of his characters’ psyches and the destinies that are spun out from their workings. Ed, the somewhat hotheaded narrator of “Down Through the Valley,” accedes to a request from his estranged wife Jane: Jane—for whom Ed still longs, as he makes a point of not telling us—has been spending the summer at an ashram with their small daughter, Marie, and Barry, the (intolerable) “meditation instructor” for whom she (understandably) left Ed. But she is to be “on a session,” and Barry has broken his ankle so he can’t look after Marie or drive to get help. Will Ed please come—a trip of several hours—to pick up Barry and Marie? Ed recalls:
We reached the car, and I held the door open for him, but he didn’t climb in right away. He stood there rocking on his crutch, gazing off at …