Fellow Freaks

Sam Thompson

  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
    Granta, 238 pp, £10.99, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84708 048 6

‘Freaks and poor people, engaged always in some violent, destructive action,’ was how Flannery O’Connor once described the subjects of her fiction. She claimed that her vision of an American South full of distorted bodies and maimed souls was not grotesque but realistic. ‘The poor love formality, I believe, even better than the wealthy,’ she wrote, ‘but their manners and forms are always being interrupted by necessity. The mystery of existence is always showing through the texture of their ordinary lives, and I’m afraid that this makes them irresistible to the novelist.’ Wells Tower demonstrates a similar affinity in his collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

Tower’s Americans are not so grandly freakish as O’Connor’s, but they are poor freaks in spirit: depressed rednecks, failed entrepreneurs, bitter carnies, bullied children and men on the run. As the collection’s title suggests, they are prone to destructive acts. The protagonist of the opening story, ‘The Brown Coast’, is typical in that he has inflicted violence on his own life: after losing his job through incompetence, his inheritance due to rear-ending an attorney, and his wife by having an affair, Bob is in exile, doing odd jobs at his uncle’s beach house. To cheer himself up he starts collecting exotic fish, but introduces a poisonous sea slug into his aquarium and the next morning discovers a tank full of corpses. He acknowledges a kinship: if he’d been born a sea creature, ‘he’d probably have been family to this sea cucumber, built in the image of sewage and cursed with a chemical belch that ruined every lovely thing that drifted near.’ Instead of vengefully packing it in salt, he slings his fellow freak back into the sea.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is Tower’s first book, but earlier versions of all nine of its stories have come out in periodicals, including the Paris Review, McSweeney’s and the New Yorker. He is also a journalist, specialising, like David Foster Wallace, in first-person-singular expeditions into curious reaches of American culture. Tower’s non-fiction adventures have included a bicycle odyssey along the New Orleans levee a year after Hurricane Katrina, a search for a possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, and an exploration of the places where Florida’s natural splendours meet its tourist industry (‘We had to build a fence around it, construct several gift shops on it and set it to a fake-calypso soundtrack in order to save it’). He has ventured beyond the cultural comfort zone of the East Coast liberal into territories shaped by the Bush administration, such as the National Conservative Student Conference in Washington DC, where young Republicans gather to imagine America’s future, or the 98,000 acres in Louisiana where the US Army runs war games in a detailed replica of an insurgent Middle Eastern nation, complete with hundreds of Arabic-speaking role-players and plenty of fake blood. For a piece in Harper’s, Tower, a Democrat, went undercover in Florida with the 2004 Bush/Cheney presidential campaign, hoping to spot electoral theft, but ending up only with ‘the grandiose anxiety that George W. Bush is going to win Florida by precisely the number of votes I myself have solicited’. Out of all this, a project emerges, and a tone of voice: that of a cautiously intrepid observer, bewildered by much of what his country contains, keen to make sense of its strange realities, but reserving judgment on whether that’s possible.

His fiction, too, looks for the particular textures of life in the US, though not always by a direct route. The title story in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the only one not set in present-day America, is narrated by a middle-aged Viking. Harald would much rather stay at home with his wife than set off on yet another bloodthirsty raid, but on Lindisfarne there is a monastery to sack and villagers to disembowel, and a man can’t turn down a job. Harald employs a modern American idiom, and the story initially presents itself as a lark, or an excuse for fun with tonal dissonance: ‘Just as we were all getting back into the mainland domestic groove, somebody started in with dragons and crop blights from across the North Sea . . . Some individuals three weeks’ boat ride off were messing up our summer and would probably need their asses whipped over it.’ But what begins as an episode of Blackadder turns into a joke of a more serious kind. As the raiding-party commits its atrocities, the dressing-up-box clichés fall away. Tower narrates the torture and dismemberment of a priest with graphic precision, much as, in another story, he describes men butchering a steer on a hunting vacation. It’s not surprising that beneath his bravado Harald is anxious:

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