Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Magill's Literary Annual 2010)
It is not surprising that award-winning author Wells Tower has crafted a debut collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, in which ordinary people are intimately observed, some at pivotal moments of their lives. His interest in sociology and anthropology, disciplines in which he earned degrees from Wesleyan University, blend with his M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University to make his stories seem as though they were case studies taken from an ongoing study of relationships. The stories explore painful bonds between parents and children as well as between siblings or friends. None of these relationships is left unscathed, as characters end up emotionally charred.
The collection includes nine poignant tales that provide surprises as well as entertainment and insight. Tower explores everyday life through the eyes of middle-aged men whose lives are falling apart, envious teenage girls, a wheelchair-bound widower who may never get a chance to touch a woman again, and even Viking warriors who find love when their battles end. A strong sense of yearning permeates all of these storiesyearning for something more, something lost, or something unlikely ever to be found.
In “The Brown Coast,” Bob Monroe is sorting out his life after the death of his father and the unraveling of his marriage. He recently made a series of mistakes, including a brief but unsatisfying affair, so everything that could go wrong for Bob does, even though he tries to fix things. The addition of an ugly sea creature to his aquarium ultimately becomes an apt metaphor for his life when it poisons the other sea animals and saltwater fish he has patiently collected. Upon finding his fish dead, Bob accepts that his marriage is dead as well. He also abandons his newfound friendship with neighbors Claire and Derrick Treat, whose troubled marriage pales in comparison to his losses. Ironically, it was Claire who found the ugly sea creature and gave it to Bob as a friendly gift. His downward spiral seems to continue as he tosses the poisonous sea slug into the ocean and nearly hits a catamaran.
Poison also plays a role in “Retreat” as brothers Matthew and Stephen reunite at Matthew’s mountain cabin in Maine. Matthew seeks to help Stephen, who is struggling financially and resents his brother’s success. When Stephen quickly befriends Matt’s retired neighbor George, Matthew is hurt. Matthew is so unable to overcome his wounded pride that he chooses to ignore their warnings and eat the grilled tenderloin of a moose shot by Stephen and George, even though the animal was clearly ill when they found it. In the course of their brief reunion, the cavernous gap between the brothers is made clear through their conversations as Matt is unable to let Stephen be right about anything, even the tainted moose meat. Their rivalry echoes the relationships of siblings in countless American families where some are black sheep and others are financial successes.
Long-silent rivalries between fathers and sons are explored more subtly in “Executors of Important Energies.” Burt is called home by his stepmother Lucy, who claims his father Roger, a former attorney, is being ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease. Burt finds that the man whose approval he has sought all his life has become a stranger. In fact, Roger treats obese chess hustler Dwayne like his new best friend, as he ignores Burt. Over dinner, Burt is forced to accept how far Roger’s grip on reality has slipped and that Roger will never appreciate his work as an inventor. The domineering force in Burt’s life, he realizes, no longer exists.
In “Down Through the Valley,” a middle-aged father painfully discovers that his young daughter Marie likes her stepfather better than she likes him. Ed reluctantly goes to the aid of his ex-wife Jane, whose second husband Barry, a yoga and meditation instructor, has broken his ankle. Jane is in seclusion at a meditation retreat in the mountains, and Barry is unable to care for Marie, who is still a toddler, so Ed agrees to pick Marie up until Jane’s retreat is over. Upon arrival, however, Ed learns he must also drive Barry back to civilization. On the harrowing ride down the mountain, Ed...
(The entire section is 1733 words.)
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