Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned … Andy’s life’s not quite that bad, but…

September 26, 2010

“Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.” – Wells Tower

Anybody. Anywhere. Anyone. Find me 23 words that open a collection of short stories better than that.

For the uninitiated: This blog is about Netty and me reading books that neither of us have read, books that one or other (or sometimes, hopefully, both) of us have thought Gee, should get round to reading that one day. An idea that has resulted in both of us, finally, getting around to reading Updike and Byatt and Pynchon and Carver. Also, this year, we’ve decided to reread six books each that we’ve read and loved in the past. Most of these have been books we first read more than two decades ago.

Not this month.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned came out last year. My reading of contemporary fiction is not as encompassing as it should be so take this with a grain of salt: it’s one of the books of the decade. I decided to “revisit” it because I’d enjoyed it so much but also because I wanted to see if, a year down the track, it was as good as I remembered. Flicking through it before rereading I realised there were a couple of stories I’d forgotten. That can’t be a good sign, can it?

Dah. I was probably drunk when I read them. One of them is almost as good as the rest, and the other is possibly the best of the lot.

Many of the narrators and characters in Tower’s stories are men in or on the cusp of middle age, men whose lives have failed them in ways they cannot quite explain. This isn’t always the case though: my favourite story on first reading was probably Wild America. There’s a failed, verging-on-middle-aged man in there, for sure, and some readings of the story may give him more import than I do. But for me it’s a story about an adolescent girl who’s perhaps handling adolescence a little more clumsily than some, who manages accidentally to hook up with a man who quite possibly wants to rape and dismember her. That doesn’t happen (sorry for the spoilers), but the story exemplifies Tower’s ability to reach far beyond the middle-aged-man-in-crisis scenario.

Tower isn’t middle-aged, incidentally. If you were wondering. He’s like three or four years younger than me. Fucker.

Leopard is also not about middle-aged men although, once again, there’s a man in it who’s a little too close to middle age for comfort. Leopard is a story in the second person about a boy who has been made to feel like an imposition by his mother and a workhorse (and an imposition) by his stepfather, a boy who tries, desperately and hilariously and movingly, to make himself different, special, worthy of consideration. He fails – or maybe he doesn’t.

Humour is important in many of these stories. The first of the two stories I’d forgotten to remember was Executors of Important Energies. This is a pretty funny story, though also painful and uncomfortable – a combination Tower pulls off superbly. But I don’t think it’s among the collection’s best.

The second story I’d forgotten is the collection’s least humourous and, upon rereading, is possibly my favourite. On the Show, the second-last in the book, is seriously bleak. There are very occasional laughs, but it’s not real funny. There is abuse and manipulation, there’s jealousy and hatred and greed and families in crisis and it’s not unfamiliar territory but while in his other stories these things are often a source of humour here mostly they’re not. And while in the book’s other stories there’s sometimes at least a sense of hope, in On the Show it’s deliberately quashed. There’s a character called Jeff, who is perhaps the story’s only font of decency. But by story’s end… Well. Let’s just say, the story’s first sentence is: “Now it’s dark.” And in the story’s last sentence, the lights go out.

I met Wells Tower at last year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. I took part in a writers’ workshop he conducted. It was interesting and rewarding, although I haven’t gone back to the fragment of story I read there since. I was quite proud of it at the time. Recently a colleague blogged about this year’s writers’ festival, and mentioned that he’d got drunk with Tower at last year’s festival. Getting drunk with Wells Tower sounds like a lot more fun than doing a writers’ workshop with him. It’d certainly be cheaper, but probably less rewarding.

All that said, if you care about fiction and you haven’t read these stories then you need to. Seriously. Now.

All that said… I’m still not sure about the Viking story.

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