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:

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 . . . 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 towards your home.

Despite the passing of a millennium, nothing much has changed for the characters who populate the rest of the book. In ‘The Brown Coast’, Bob’s handful of bad decisions has proved enough to relegate him, in effect, from modern civilisation. He is made to tear up his uncle’s patio:

The work made him angry, first at Randall, who it was obvious hadn’t so much as dragged a broom across this patio in the six years he’d owned it, and then at himself, for letting his life drift back to a place where he’d had to take the kind of ape work he had not done in years. Bob had helped build five whole homes, from the mudsills to the shingles. He’d put up a house for himself and Vicky, and when she first saw it finished, she couldn’t stop laughing because it looked so good. What a gentle, decent kind of life he’d had with her. What a perfect pageant of disgrace he’d cast himself in now: down on all fours, clawing like an animal at thorns and marsh cherries whose yellow fruit left his hands smelling like bad breath, the red weight of the sun on him, and nobody around to pity his cracked hands or bring him something cool to drink.

We’re no longer meant to be Vikings, living by our muscles, but Bob finds it all too easy to slip back into an existence that’s nothing but ‘picking shit up and putting shit down’.

Most of the stories centre on men, and being a man means struggling to compete with all the better-looking, more plausible versions of masculinity out there. It means being locked into helpless male antagonisms: brother v. brother, son v. father, ex-husband v. husband. In ‘Down through the Valley’, Ed’s estranged wife, Jane, has persuaded him to drive out to the remote ashram where she is spending the summer, because her new boyfriend, Barry, has broken his ankle and needs a lift back to the city. Barry is a meditation instructor who maintains an insufferable veneer of easygoing manners, spiritual health and emotional honesty, and, no doubt, plies Jane with yogic bedroom moves; when he lifts Ed’s small daughter up to watch a flock of geese fly past, it’s obvious he’s held her many times before. For Ed, who sees himself as terse and disillusioned, Barry is hippie-as-nemesis. Here, as often in the stories, a slow-building passage of reflective prose leads into a punchline of perfectly calibrated direct speech:

You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up. Her belly slumping against the small of your back on a cold morning. The slippery marvel of her soaped up in the shower. A night long ago when you moved on each other so sincerely that you sheared off two quarter-inch lag bolts that held your bed together. But start playing back all the old footage, and pretty soon Mendocino Barry steals into the frame, his bare dark-brindled haunches in your bed, candles and an incense stencher fuming on the nightstand. You can see him tucking a yellow thumbnail under the scalloped elastic of her bikini underpants and shucking them down slow, maybe with a word or two about lotus blossoms . . . You don’t want to get into thoughts about Hovering Butterflies or the Jade Stalk, or the Door of the Holy Abode, when you can remember one time, a few times actually, when you came home late under a fair amount of liquor and you got on top of your sleeping wife, going: ‘Come on, Mother, can’t we poon?’

They don’t make it to the city. When Barry tries using his ‘California magic’ to calm a confrontation between strangers in the parking lot of a roadside restaurant, it’s Ed who ends up in a fistfight. He comes off best, but as he sits on the tarmac beside his unconscious adversary (‘it was hard to look at, how his cheek sagged away from his eye’), guarded by a barman with a baseball bat while they wait for the cops to arrive, he realises the world has suckered him again.

Similarly unable to catch a break is Burt, the narrator of ‘Executors of Important Energies’, who carries a lifetime’s resentment of his charismatic, self-centred father, Roger. Burt spent his childhood with a crush on his young stepmother, Lucy, and cherished a vague belief that, around his 16th birthday, he would somehow inherit her, perhaps along with his father’s Mustang fastback. But Roger has never shown any tendency to make way for the next generation, and has offered his son only ‘aggressive indifference’. Burt remembers weekends spent playing chess continually, his father winning every time:

Only once did I come close to beating him. He’d had some cocktails, and he blundered, moving his queen into the path of my knight. I sacked the piece, and he slapped me on the mouth. I ran into the bathroom and punched myself several times to ensure a lasting bruise. When I emerged, he didn’t apologise, not exactly. But he said he’d give me anything I wanted not to tell my mother about it. I said I’d take a computer and a CO2 BB gun. My father drew up a contract on his firm’s letterhead, and I signed. We bought the gun that day. I used it to shoot a pretty lemon-coloured warbler, which I stroked, then buried in my mother’s lawn. Then I shot a dove and a chickadee, and gave the gun to the kid who lived next door.

Unlike his father, Burt doesn’t quite know how to capitalise on an advantage. The transaction over the chessboard tells us all we need to know about the two men, but then the story brings them into stereoscopic definition by leaping forward to the present: the ageing Roger is now suffering from dementia, and Lucy, drained beyond endurance by caring for a man who keeps calling the police because he doesn’t recognise her, brings him to visit Burt in New York. Burt finds them in Washington Square Park, where his father is playing chess with a hustler, as addicted to victory as ever:

‘To hell with orgasms,’ he mused, leaning into the table. ‘I’ll take a clean rook-ending any day. I mean, Jesus, Wade, what is it? What is it that makes it such a joy to beat a man at chess? . . . It’s better than life. In the world, there’s no such thing as a clean escape, if you follow me . . . I mean, you could keep cleaning my clock all night, but at the end of the day, you’ve still got a broken tooth and a snot booger on your collar and a head full of garbage that keeps you up at night, but –’

  ‘Hey, motherfucker, be nice,’ said Dwayne.

As the visit plays out – Roger insisting on taking the hustler to dinner, determined not to betray his illness to his new friend – it becomes clear that he’s right, and only in chess is there such a thing as a clean escape. A few hours in the company of his alternately helpless and tyrannical father leaves Burt emotionally checkmated, pinned between grief and the longing finally to settle the score of Roger’s selfishness. ‘Tell me you’re sorry,’ he demands at the end of their chaotic evening, but his father is having a bad moment and can’t provide even this.

Tower seems to have no trouble conjuring maddening antagonists whose hypocrisies are enjoyably outrageous, but the clean structural lines of indignation keep shading off into the real world. Burt may be angry with his father, but he’s never going to get the reparation he wants for his childhood; especially not when it’s late at night and Roger’s forgotten the name of his hotel. Because earlier versions of the stories have already been published, it’s possible to trace how their revisions have worked in favour of dissatisfaction and ambiguity: in the 2001 Paris Review version of ‘Down through the Valley’, Barry is unequivocally the bad guy; in this version he remains Ed’s nemesis, but we’re aware it might not look that way if we weren’t reading from Ed’s point of view. Another story, ‘Retreat’, deals with the bitter rivalry between two brothers, a musician and a property developer, each insecure about his own achievements and hyperconscious of any slight from his sibling. In the process of revision Tower has transferred the narration from the younger brother to the elder. The brothers disagree on every point, but because both are potential narrators, the finished story deftly carries its own counter-story along with it.

One of the sharpest rivalries in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is between a pair of teenage cousins, Jacey and Maya, who in ‘Wild America’ are spending the summer together. As children they were allies, but then puberty hit, and ‘three weeks shy of 16, Maya had evolved into a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute, while Jacey still went around with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar.’ Maya comes close to being an entertaining monster, drifting around talking about her dancing career and how boring she finds her catalogue-model boyfriend, and insinuating her glamorous difference from Jacey whenever the chance arises. Jacey, meanwhile, feels that while she may not be a ballet star, at least she’s clever and illusion-free. But she’s more vulnerable than she thinks: Maya’s needling eventually drives her out into the woods, where she meets a stranger who introduces himself as Stewart Quick. He has a scarred arm that he says was reattached after being severed by an industrial washing-machine, and his charm has an edge of menace, but still she begs a bottle of his beer, lets him kiss her, and later gets into his car.

Jacey has faint echoes of Hulga, the victim in Flannery O’Connor’s story ‘Good Country People’: Hulga the nihilistic PhD, who is so intellectually contemptuous of the folk around her that she falls for the fake seduction of a Bible salesman, the phallonymous Manley Pointer, and allows him to steal her wooden leg. Stewart Quick, too, is a figure of threatening male vitality, and has his own invasive designs (when Jacey asks about his damaged arm he makes a strange joke, offering to swap it for one of her good legs: ‘Premium merchandise. Mint condition’). Jacey is rescued from whatever fate Quick has in store for her by an unexpected meeting with her father, who has arrived early for a visit, but she’s not pleased to be saved:

At the sight of her father, the fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification took its place. There he stood, not yet 40, bald as an apple, and beaming out an uncomprehending fat-boy’s smile. His face, swollen with a 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 grey 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 was Jacey’s right alone to keep hidden from the world. Whatever desirable thing Stewart Quick had seen in her, she knew it couldn’t survive the association with the stolid smiler walking towards her over the Bermuda grass.

‘Wild America’, like ‘Good Country People’, ends in epiphanic humiliation, but Jacey isn’t trapped in the way O’Connor’s character is. Although her day is a ‘festival of shame’, she’ll get over it. The sight of her father leaves her exposed not to the withering truth of some absolute perspective, but to her own sense of irony (and in this respect, Tower’s sympathetic mortification of his character is closer in spirit to Frank O’Connor than to Flannery). Even so, the texture of ordinary life is stretching thin for Jacey, and something mysterious is showing through: the weird shamefulness of genetic relationship and family intimacy, the biological nature of the embarrassment a parent can inflict on his child, and the ease with which a child can betray a parent in her heart.

These are the moments at which Tower’s stories end, with characters glimpsing their own strangeness, surrounded suddenly by the mysteries that only a freak can know about. More than one story finishes with a clear dive away from the narrative. In ‘Down through the Valley’, we learn that Jane, during her marriage to Ed, suffered recurring nightmares that there was a man standing over the bed. As Ed sits in the parking lot waiting to be arrested, his thoughts start spiralling away from what ought to be his present crisis:

What came into my head right then was the memory of those nights when Jane would have her dreams. Sometimes the dream would infect me, too. I’d wake up screaming along with her, almost seeing that man with us in the room, knowing just a thin second stood between a hammer or a hatchet and the back of my head. She’d get up, cut the lights on, check the closets, under the bed, and I’d get up and do it with her, and not because she asked me to. When we finally got back under the covers, we’d stay up a long while in the dark, half sleeping, hearts going, conscious of all the places in our house where we hadn’t thought to look.

Only at the close of the story do we realise how lonely this man is and how far adrift, how much he still wants his wife, how badly he’s lost touch with his daughter and how ill-equipped he is to improve matters. In a way, the story, like the others in the collection, doesn’t end at all. Nothing is resolved, and the most important things were never soluble anyway: the mortifying selfhood you couldn’t escape; the fact that, when you once had a wife, you couldn’t protect her from bad dreams.