Monday, May 3, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

One of my favorite ideas about writing fiction is from Flannery O'Connor. It's the idea that a moment of grace is often preceded by a moment of violence. Not only that, but it makes the action of grace possible. Now, "grace" can be interpreted in a number of ways—maybe it's the redemptive moment, or even the revelation that sometimes happens at the end of short stories. But sometimes it's less than that: it's the moment the character is ready to accept that revelation or redemption. I kept thinking of the violence/grace equation as I was reading Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of short stories full of violence and humor and vivid characters.

The majority of the characters are lower middle-class (with two notable exceptions: a wealthy real-estate developer and a viking, but more on that later) and they're all experiencing disappointment, whether it takes the form of divorce, failed inventions, or reaching old age and finding themselves too reliant on their children. There's an underlying sense of melancholy through the whole book, but Tower's ability to draw a kind of black humor from his characters and situations makes it so that the stories don't get bogged down in despair or melodrama.

The first story, "The Brown Coast," was probably my favorite in the book: a laid-off carpenter finds himself in a kind of exile on a Gulf Coast island, repairing a house for his uncle. His wife threw him out after she found another woman's footprint on the inside of his windshield. The carpenter, Bob, starts collecting fish he finds near a rocky outcropping, assembling a full aquarium, until a well-meaning neighbor gives him a sea cucumber that poisons the rest of the fish. Bob regards the sea cucumber with something like pity: he figures that if he was born a sea creature, he would be this ugly, poison-belching thing, rather than a beautiful, graceful fish. He flings it out into the water, nearly hitting a glamorous young couple on a sailboat. The story is just full of incredible imagery and language, and Tower can describe a broken porch in such a vivid way that you can see the cracked and rotted wood. But the moment where the violence and grace concept really came into play was when Bob sees what happened to his aquarium and decides to feel sorry for the sea cucumber—even though the creature has destroyed so much, it can't help its nature any more than Bob can.

There are a few stories in the book that aren't as strong—"Leopard" is written in the second person and it comes off a little forced. I feel like the story could have easily been one of my favorites if it had been told differently, because the plot is reminiscent of a Mountain Goats song: a boy home sick from school hates his stepfather and learns that someone's pet leopard is loose in the neighborhood, and the story ends with a (possibly imagined) rustling from the woods as the stepfather argues with a police officer. The second-person just didn't work for me. And "On the Show" experimented with an omniscient narrator but it could have been better-developed. On the whole, though, these were the kinds of short stories that made me want to write more short fiction.

The title story was probably one of the strangest, most surprising stories I've read in some time: it's about a viking who is recruited to go pillage an island that his crew recently returned from, when all he wants to do is stay home and spend some time with his wife. The viking and his crew get dragged along on a raid, but once they get there and realize that the island has been over-pillaged and the whole trip is worthless, they go meet some of the villagers and the narrator's friend Gnut falls in love with a local woman. The story is interesting in the way it's told: except for the fact that it revolves around vikings, the story and its characters could exist in any of Tower's stories. I guess the author was thinking about how the same troubles exist in any kind of setting or time period; the last few lines are about worrying what the world can do to the people you love, lying in bed listening for the sound of oars rowing toward your home. And it's strange how relevant that feels.

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