A chess hustler, a snoop in wheelchair, a budding recluse who communes with weird fish, a pair of brothers fighting over whether they should buy a mountain, and a man who gets beaten up by a welterweight in a parking lot. The ensemble cast from a Bob Dylan song, circa 1964? No, just a partial lineup of the people we meet in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the short-story debut from Wells Tower.
As evidenced by the emotional punch packed into such brief tales—nine stories in about 250 pages—Tower is almost incapable of overloading a sentence with an unnecessary word. His style is perfectly suited to short fiction: “Down Through the Valley,” in less than twenty pages, is jammed with more pathos than a four-hundred-page potboiler. Ed is a lonely sort who has recently separated from his wife, Jane; she and Marie, the couple’s daughter, have since gone to live in a New Age retreat with a latter-day hippie named Barry. Ed is broken up by the ordeal, but it’s not long before one of his offhand confessions makes the reader understand why he might struggle in serious relationships. Looking for solace, he takes up with a girl from work. “She was molten in my bed but she also suffered depressions that were very dear to her. She would often call just to sigh at me for two hours on the phone, wanting me to applaud her depth of feeling,” Ed says. “I cut it off, then missed her, wishing that I’d had the sense at least to take her naked photograph.” He may not be a romantic from the old school, but he does have a heart: Called to retrieve Marie and a suddenly ailing Barry, he hops into his car and heads for the country. The return trip, though, turns chaotic; before long, violence spills onto the pavement.
Tower possesses a gift for evoking the natural world through comparisons to mundane objects. The retreat is near “a lake the color of new blue jeans,” and at the right time of the afternoon “the sky and the fields and the fall trees . . . go the color of sherbet.” Ed notices, too, that “the green grid of farmlands looked crisp and vivid as a poker table.” The stories often inform and deepen one another by showing how easily expectations can be upended by happenstance. If “Down Through the Valley” wryly warns about the danger of helping the guy who stole your wife, “Executors of Important Energies” offers a variation on that theme, featuring the unexpected goodness of a shady-seeming stranger.
Burt, the inventor protagonist of “Executors,” is unhappy when he learns his dad is coming to New York City for a visit—his once-brilliant father’s mental facilities are almost entirely gone, aside from a certain mastery of chess. A meeting is arranged, and Burt finds his father, Roger, playing chess in Washington Square Park. Burt is convinced his dad’s opponent is a grifter, and when the afternoon ends with Roger down forty dollars, the suspicion appears warranted. Roger, nevertheless, insists that the chess shark accompany the family to dinner. For his part, Burt is certain how this will end—he’ll be expected to spring for the food and drink with little more than a thank-you from anyone at the table. He turns out to be right about dinner but discovers—as events take an unlikely turn—that he’s wrong about the stranger from the park.
“Leopard” and “Door in Your Eye” also mesh, in their investigation of the confusion experienced by the very young and the very old. “Leopard” is a simple story: Eleven-year-old Yancy has a fungus above his lip—his meaner classmates claim it looks like hamburger—so he finagles a day off from school to avoid their abuse. His sabbatical, though, earns him an extra chore from his surly stepfather. Collecting the mail, he finds a flyer warning that a dangerous wild animal is on the loose. Could this feral beast roaming the woods near his family’s land cause such a ruckus that his facial growth and overbearing stepdad become minor issues?
In “Door in Your Eye,” an elderly, disabled man moves in with his adult daughter. A Rear Window scenario ensues, as Albert watches a woman’s apartment across the street as stranger after stranger enters, stays a few minutes, and leaves. He is certain she’s a prostitute and, when he witnesses a derelict try to set fire to her front door, is determined to help her. Cane in hand, he ventures over and learns the truth: She’s providing a different kind of service, and soon Albert is puffing on a nice thick joint. While Yancy prays and hopes for a day of serenity, Albert realizes that this moment of peace and bliss might be among his last.
The collection’s title story—a yarn about marauding seamen—is something of a misstep, even though it allows the author to deploy verbal pyrotechnics: “A turncoat Norwegian monk named Naddod,” he writes, “had been big medicine on the dragon-and-blight circuit for the last decade or so.” But despite the occasional flash, Tower truly shines when he’s writing about the worries and fears—and momentary triumphs—that animate less dramatic lives. In “Retreat,” the story about two brothers and ownership of a mountain, one of the siblings observes, “Ours isn’t the kind of brotherhood I would wish on other men, but we are blessed with a single, simple gift: in these rare moments of happiness, we can share joy as passionately and single-mindedly as we do hatred.” The sentiment, so characteristic of Tower at his best, is bittersweet, beautiful, and ardently conflicted.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York.