Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

One of my favorite moments in Wells Tower’s debut collection of short stories does not concern any of his human characters at all. It comes right after a family dinner in a Manhattan restaurant has gone horribly wrong, in the way things do when people bound to each other through years of ill will and forced intimacy are confined to a small public space in which they have no choice but to act out major battles under the constraint of public decorum. A group of men stands on the sidewalk in uneasy camaraderie, uncertain what exactly they’ve done to drive away the sole woman at their table, and not even sure if they can trust each other to get out of the fix. One of the participants notices a pigeon pecking at a cocktail sword. “It got the blade in its beak,” he says, “and waddled proudly down the street and vanished, turning right on Minetta Lane.”

Whatever purpose the pigeon has in mind for his cast-off piece of treasure, it seems unlikely it will come in handy for any battles that may lurk around the corners of charming lanes in Greenwich Village (though one would not presume to know what gentrification looks like from a pigeon’s-eye view). Many of Tower’s characters are similarly outfitted with absurd, most likely useless weapons that plump them up with temporary bravado without really helping things out much.

And most of these characters are in serious need of help. In the title story — an adroitly executed tale of Viking marauders, where wit, gore and hominess jockey equally for attention — a good deal of everything on a small, pretty, unfortunately located island is quite literally ravaged and burned. The rest of the stories are set in more or less the present day, or concern children and adolescents coming of age in the decades when Barbara Eden’s belly would have been a common target of teen lust and kids would have “stacks of cassettes of your favorite songs, taped off the radio, so all of them started a few seconds in, but you don’t mind.” (Tower is in his mid-30s and frequently publishes in McSweeney’s, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and, recently, The New Yorker.) But in nearly all cases, people are ravaging their own metaphorical islands, often by extravagant means.

Bob Munroe, in “The Brown Coast,” has lost his job, his inheritance, and his wife in a matter of weeks, and has ended up on the floor of his uncle’s derelict Florida cabin, surrounded by disturbing joke taxidermy and a homemade Budweiser painting with the script bunched up “so it bulged in the middle, like a snake swallowing a rat.” Through Bob’s eyes, even the tropical landscape is infected: “he sun looked orange and thick, like a canned peach”; the water is “thick and warm as baby oil” — even a sunset and balmy water are described in terms more suited for items from a subpar convenience store. When he spots a beautiful fish (“t was a fish for looking at, not eating, a kind of fish that would cost you good money at a pet store”), he lures it with his own spit in an attempt to spiff up his dismal surroundings.

Like befuddled warriors, characters often perceive threats where it’s manifestly unclear any exist: In “Retreat,” a real estate hustler who has recently bought a mountain in Maine is convinced that his brother — a broke music therapist who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment with a dying collie whose bladder must be manually voided (“someone regularly seen by the roadside, hand-juicing a half-dead dog”) — holds a grudge against people like him (“people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores”), and invites him up for a vacation, mostly to torment him unfairly for perceived slights.

Though many of the stories concern the violent misunderstandings between men and their rivals, sex doesn’t offer anyone much solace either. In “On the Show,” a first date between divorcés goes horribly wrong when one of their sons is molested in the Port-a-Potty while they are making out on the Ferris wheel (in that story, the woman says that her ex-husband would “grab at her like he was trying to clutch his way to a place where he’d never have to touch a woman again”). The cuckolded husband in “Down Through the Valley” reluctantly agrees to drive his daughter and his wife’s new lover — a meditation teacher — back from an ashram (“I was heartened that Jane wanted to get us to the place where we could start doing favors for each other. It was her sort of olive branch, more wood than fruit,” he says) and not surprisingly finds his thoughts wandering to some truly dirty uses for yoga moves. After discovering his much younger wife has been unfaithful, the father of the narrator of “Executors of Important Energies” “took her back without forgiving her, then went on to betray her many times, believing it was something he owed them both.”

The sentences in this book are a constant reminder of Tower’s talent — strange, precise, frequently grotesque and singularly his own. A cat brings in a dead bird that looks like “a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute.” A teenage girl watching a nature show observes that velvet from an elk’s horns looks “like carpet from a murder site.” A carnival worker passes the time by flaking the dead skin from his arm: “or nostalgia’s sake, he pauses now and then to mound the dead skin into a line and guesses at it’s cash value if the skin were good cocaine.”

Despite — and perhaps because of — all the pillaging and ill will going on in these stories, there is a primal sense of home as well. One of the Viking marauders returns with a one-armed wife — “Is this a voluntary thing or an abduction-type deal?” his friend asks — and spends the whole time boat ride back from her destroyed kingdom “trying to keep her soothed and safe from all of us, his friends.” Two of the stories in the book — I’ll leave it to readers to discover which ones — end with characters under the covers, fearing for the intruders who may come for them and their families. In both cases, part of the fear seems to come from being unsure about just who the real intruders are. For those who have already ravaged and burned others, its not clear if they have more to fear from the threats without — or within — those walls.