Familial love is a double-edged sword. Loved ones can act as the most essential structure for support, and they can also be the first to break down the very foundation they helped to build. For those who gather their emotional strength from their family unit, as a child, from their parents, or in a family they create themselves through marriage, it’s an understatement to say these are the ties that bind. They are the veins that hold us together, regardless of how much we may want to shake off their sinewy grasp.
In Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a debut short fiction collection from Wells Tower, we’re children again, in the tree house or holed up in our bedroom, hiding out at the moment of disconnect when our world comes crashing down around us: our parents are human! Our children are strangers. Suddenly, we’re adults. The characters in these stories are all recovering from the demise of a major relationship: a broken marriage, neglectful parents, ungrateful children, lack of sex, sexual abuse, and overall disillusionment with the people closest to them.
In the opening story, Bob’s entire life falls apart after the death of his father–much to his surprise. “Bob had not been close to his father, so it was puzzling for him and also for his wife, Vicky, when his father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdled his enthusiasm for work and married life.”
In “Executors of Important Energies,” Burt’s relationship with his father goes from strained to non-existent when his dad develops an Alzheimer’s-like disease. “I was in my twenties when my father’s mind began to go. At first, I thought his failure to remember where I was living, or that I’d finished school was just a deepening of the aggressive indifference with which he’d always treated me, but it turned out to be something that a dozen good neurologists couldn’t figure out.”
In both stories, though neither man is emotionally close to his father, the death one of one and the illness of another sends them reeling.
The most crystallized, intriguing moment of disillusionment comes in “Wild America,” the only story in the collection with a female narrator. Jacey, an unsurprisingly awkward teenager, is traumatized when her ballerina cousin comes to visit. When she ventures into the woods with a boy she’s humoring and the cousin steals the spotlight, her ego can’t handle the sleight. She skulks off into the forest and encounters a stranger drinking beer by the river. The scene escalates as she agrees to get in his car, where he molests her. More shocking and intriguing than Jacey’s attack is the way Tower chooses to end the story. As Jacey drives by, she spies her father out in the driveway:
"At the sight of her father, fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification
took its place. There he stood, not yet forty, bald as an apple, and beaming
out an uncomprehending fat-boy’s smile. His face, swollen with recent sunburn, glowed against the green dark of the rosebushes at his back. He wore the cheap rubber sandals Jacey hated, and a black T-shirt airbrushed with the heads of howling wolves, whose smaller twin lay at the bottom of Jacey’s closet with the price tag still attached. Exhausted gray socks collapsed around his thick ankles, which rose to the familiar legs Jacey herself was afflicted with, bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve. Her humiliation was sudden and solid and without thought or reason.
"But the wordless, exposed sensation overwhelming her was that her father wasn’t quite a person, not really, but a private part of her, a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that Jacey was right alone to keep hidden from the world."
In this story and nearly every other in the book, the recognition of a latent displeasure or disgust with a disappointing relation sets of a cardinal insecurity in the character themselves, as if, after being put-down again and again, they finally agree with their oppressor and see themselves as failures.
In “Retreat,” two very different brothers just simply can’t understand each other, yet they persist in trying to force each other to conform to each other’s philosophy of life. A visit from Matt’s brother Stephen sends him down a spiral of regret. “I thought of Stephen and me and the children we’d failed to produce, and how in the diminishing likelihood that I did find someone to smuggle my genetic material into, by the time our little one could tie his shoes, his father would be a florid fifty-year-old who would suck the innocence and joy from his child as greedily as a desert wanderer savaging a found orange.”
Even in the end, the ultimate symbol of their brotherly bond continues to be their failure: the meat from a regal moose Matt kills on the hunt goes sour before the men can eat it. The communal let down, the shared suffering of these characters serves as a uniting force—just like siblings will bond over the abuse of a shared parent.
Since this collection debuted, most reviewers have heralded as a signal of the return of macho man writing. Elizabeth Gumport astutely raises this issue in her review for Bookslut, wondering if perhaps Wells Tower is being lumped into a group of writers to which he doesn’t really belong (Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolaño). She’s right—while the stories here are similarly violent, it’s not as if they fall into some macho, action movie genre. A more appropriate comparison would be to the work of Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections seethes with the same aggression and resentment. And boy, do Tower’s men have “daddy issues.” They house a maelstrom of anger against their inadequate fathers, knowing that they’re doomed to make the same mistakes. And while these men are masculine, they are also keenly aware of their own sensitivity.
Wells Tower is not solely interested in damage and violence for its shock value—he’s more intrigued by its genesis and the way it ricochets off everything we do. His attention to the relationship between a pair of brothers, father and daughter, or father and son, proves that he’s more interested in people, as they enter and exit our lives: especially those who tend to stick to our bones, our family. The world he’s created isn’t a nice one, and Tower, bravely, isn’t afraid to suggest that it’s better to abandon some relationships. After all, to cleanse a dying forest, you’ve got to burn down a few trees.