A Hideous, Vital Warmth

Photo: Hatnim Lee

Anyone who’s taken even a lazy stroll through the well-worn territory of destructive fictional masculinity—Hemingway, Carver, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Yates, Bolaño, et al.—will recognize the basic flora and fauna of Wells Tower’s stories: the hunting trips, the fistfights, the hard drinking, the adultery. He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence. His debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is (as its apocalyptic title suggests) an astonishingly well-stocked smorgasbord of cruelty, coercion, insult, and predation. It opens with a man waking to a feeling of dread, a cracker shard “lodged deep into his buttock crack, like a flint arrowhead,” and things only get more sinister from there. A cat eats a baby pigeon, slowly. A loathsome little sea cucumber (“it looked like the turd of someone who’d been eating rubies”) poisons, overnight, an entire tank of exotic fish. Brothers nurture mutual addictions to lifelong sadomasochistic rivalries (as one puts it: “I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother’s wrath”). A wife wakes up, screaming, to recurrent visions of a man standing over her. An old father’s brain is pillaged by dementia. The violences compound, quickly and complexly: Peacekeepers escalate the fights they’re trying to stop; a son, slapped by his father, runs to the bathroom and punches himself “several times to ensure a lasting bruise.” Various creatures are elaborately gutted: a moose (“Blood ran from the meat and down my shirt with hideous, vital warmth”), several catfish, and a medieval priest named Naddod.

Tower, who grew up in North Carolina, has been seeding these stories patiently across magazines and literary journals over the last ten years or so, quietly building a reputation as a painstaking stylist devoted to the near-impossible art of highly polished colloquialism. Reading his work piecemeal as it emerged, what stood out most was the lovely warmth of his voice. His sentences are strenuously musical, full of careful detail and surprising metaphors (“sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range”). He has a special talent for channeling the idiosyncrasies of lower-middle-class speech, and his plots often weave around bright little bursts of incidental dialogue:

Then she turned back to her newspaper and brought our chat to an end. The front-page story of the Aroostook Gazette showed a photograph of a dead chow dog, under the headline “Mystery Animal Found Dead in Pinemont.”
“Quite a mystery,” I said. “ ‘The Case of What Is Obviously a Dog.’ ”
“ ‘Undetermined origin,’ says here.”
“It’s a dog, a chow,” I said.
“Undetermined,” the woman said.

I didn’t realize, until I read the stories back to back, how much ugliness Tower forces that voice to contend with. His fictional universe is a perfectly balanced little biosphere of violence and mercy, aggression and nurturing. Epiphanies are instantly spoiled, scams turn out to be acts of kindness, mercy tips easily into sadism. When a victim catches a break, he immediately starts prowling for an advantage. And yet, somehow, the book is not cripplingly depressing. Tower’s voice is too consistently artful and funny and empathetic. Although we’re deep in the familiar backwoods of Man Country (only one of the nine stories is told from a female perspective, and it’s largely about how she’s hemmed in on all sides by males), it also feels like something slightly new in the canon of maleness—a little glade or clearing, where the air is slightly different. His characters’ masculinity is self-aware, regretful, and willing to peek cautiously outside its own borders. In the book’s first story, “The Brown Coast,” a man impulsively flips a large, lazy, hungry exotic fish out of a tide pool and smuggles it home wrapped in a wet T-shirt; as he runs, it bucks and flaps against his body, leading him to consider, briefly, life on the other side of the fence: “It was a violent and vital sensation, and Bob wondered for a moment if it was anything like this when a woman had a baby inside her.”

The book’s most memorable story is also its most unusual. The title story abandons Tower’s typical cast of (roughly) contemporary Americans in favor of a boatload of Vikings heading off to plunder a tiny, defenseless island. It functions as a kind of test case for the Tower aesthetic. Viking violence is inherently mythic, its mundane cruelty having been worn away by centuries of History Channel specials. The story’s expedition is led by Djarf Fairhair, an embodiment of pure legendary violence: He eats food out of dead men’s stomachs, clubs people with severed legs, strides across the shoulders of enemy armies lopping heads off, and (in one of the book’s more horrifying scenes) matter-of-factly performs something called a “blood eagle,” a form of torture that involves pulling a victim’s still-breathing lungs out through holes in his back. “As Naddod huffed and gasped,” the narrator tells us before he looks away, “the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.” (Historians speculate, terribly, that this was a real Viking ritual.)

Tower seems to enjoy undercutting this kind of romanticized barbarity. In a clever reversal, he has his Vikings speak in the same lower-middle-class Americanisms as the rest of his characters. His narrator is Harald, a reluctant raider who would have preferred to stay home with his wife, working his land, and who (at least until the end) refuses to participate in any pillaging. Midway through the attack, a farmer named Bruce comes out to shoot the breeze with Harald and the other nice Vikings:

“So what are you doing, any looting?”
“Why? You got anything to loot?”
“Me? Oh, no. Got a decent cookstove, but I can’t see you toting that back on the ship.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a coin hoard or anything buried out back.”“Jeezum crow, I wish I did have. Coin hoard, I’d really turn things around for myself.”

Although Harald and his friends never pillage outright, they do end up committing a more ambiguous act of violence, and the book finishes as it began—with a man waking up haunted by a feeling of doom: “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. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.”

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
By Wells Tower.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

A Hideous, Vital Warmth