Tuesday, 15 March 2011

'how terrible love can be'

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
by Wells Tower

So universal was the praise for this debut collection of stories from Wells Tower that the copy I was lent by a friend at work was purchased by him for just a few quid along with a newspaper, the kind of promotional stunt usually reserved for populist fiction and chick-lit. Anyone used to that kind of fare may have received a bit of a shock on diving into this volume with tales ranging from rape and pillage by a group of marauding Vikings in the title story to the sexual abuse of a young boy in a carnival toilet. Don't worry, it isn't as grim as it sounds (well the abuse bit is, obviously), there is humour too, but always of a distinctly dark hue and the collection as a whole has a grimy and slightly rotten feel to it. I say this as a good thing, reminding me of a similar trait that runs through the work of Denis Johnson and his own story collection Jesus' Son in particular. The situations and the characters that populate them may be far from perfect but each has its moments of yearning for something beautiful, something that redeems the very human pursuits on display. If there isn't hope itself there is ways the hope that hope will appear. You hope.

The quote on the cover highlights 'sentences so good you want to cut them out and pin them to the wall' and there's no doubting that there are plenty of memorable phrases, images and dialogue. The story Wild America gives you all of those, first with the opening paragraph describing the scene when a cat brings in the gift of a baby pigeon stolen from its nest -

The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender ovals around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.
Then later with some of the brilliant idiomatic dialogue that had me chuckling on several occasions.
'Well, I had this boss. I'm telling you, if you asked me for an asshole, and I gave you that guy, you'd have owed me back some change.'

In fact whilst we're at it let's get a few more of these pinned up. See how easy it is to visualise 'a face like a paper bag smoothed flat by a dirty palm'. Or to feel a little twinge when someone remembers rare conversations with their father - 'He'd tell me love was like the chicken pox, a thing you get through early because it could really kill you in your later years.' And be ready for the odd line that might test your resolve; reviewers try to avoid spoilers but my warning this time is that the following line is almost bound to offend - 'I'd eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out of.'

That's the kind of dialogue you should expect in the seedy world of the carnival, a world brought frighteningly to life in one of the standout stories On The Show. In a collection that fizzes with memorable lines you could be forgiven for thinking that the writing would be like a firework display: plenty of pyrotechnics but plenty of standing around in chilly silence too, but Tower knows how to go about his work quietly too. On The Show has a deceptively soothing beginning.

Shadow falls across the Crab Rangoon stand. A Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank's enamel face into a crescent of deep rust. Against the lizard's belly, the rust's soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard's hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one.

But that switch from something living to something dead is significant. The carnival is populated by some pretty rotten characters and within a few pages a young boy has been subjected to sexual assault in a portable toilet

In Retreat we meet a property developer who has recently bought himself a mountain (a fairly grandiose sounding claim which is actually the truth), a place where he hopes to not only build his own piece of the American Dream, a cabin in the woods where he can take secluded breaks, hunt, fish and other manly pursuits but a dream he intends to sell in lots to other men of a similar age, making himself a small fortune in the process. Having struck up an enforced friendship with the man who sold him the land who is now his neighbour he then receives a visit from his brother with whom he shares a fractious relationship. When the three of them go out hunting together there is plenty of testosterone flying about but also some brilliantly observed male relationships. A trip which aught to bring a group of disparate men together ends in poison and difference.

Complimenting by association with other writers is a common review tactic which I don't tend to indulge in but when reading  Executors Of Important Energies I couldn't help but be reminded of Cheever's Reunion. Tower's story is just as uncomfortable to read in places and doesn't suffer as badly as you might expect when standing next to that genuine masterpiece of the short form. As with Reunion a man meets with his ageing father in a restaurant. Here he is clearly suffering with the onset of dementia and the cast includes his new wife as well as an innocent bystander but both stories share that same conflict between love and embarrasment and also tie rather neatly into one of the collections overarching ideas - that love is a painful thing, something that hurts and damages the afflicted.

The title story sums all of that up rather well and in a manner that is as surprising as it is original. To write a story about a group of marauding Vikings is one thing, to write it in the modern vernacular is another, but to use it as a way of expressing the danger of falling in love is inspired. Because that I think is what a lot of these stories are about, the danger that you bring on yourself by caring about someone else. The Viking setting simply makes the threat more obvious, the violence more visceral, the need to protect more desparate. Our narrator describes a raid that ends with death, evisceration and finally the kidnap of a one-armed female but the conclusion he comes too at the end of the tale, after having made a family for himself during this period of unrest and conflict, is what a dangerous thing it is to invest in another human being when you know what humans are capable of.

I got an understanding of how terrible love can be. You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It's crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it.


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