In this supremely assured debut collection, Wells Tower’s sentences roll across the page in the kind of unflappably authentic American vernacular that will be instantly familiar to admirers of JD Salinger, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. With prose that is tough yet supple,  beautifully crafted but apparently effortless, his mastery of voice allows him to tell stories with an astonishing economy of means.

Tower’s work is frequently dark and often extremely funny. The pathos with which he treats his key themes of failure and dysfunction is apparent from the opening story ‘The Brown Coast’, in which the washed-up central character experiences a moment of deep personal empathy with a sea slug that resembles a turd. Tower’s stories do not end with Joycean epiphanies, but he shares Carver and Wolff’s knack for delivering, almost by sleight-of-hand, flashes of psychological insight revealed in the ordinary.

Much of this collection evokes a Middle America existing in an uneasy truce between civilisation and barbarity. Sublimated rage and desire lurk beneath its surface, with bad blood between sons and fathers a notable recurring theme. Several stories explore a sense of vulnerable, threatened masculinity: ‘Retreat’ is a backwoods male bonding tale about the love-hate relationship between two brothers, while in ‘Down Through The Valley’, a man endures a long, tense car drive with his estranged wife’s lover.

Yet Towers is nothing if not versatile, proving equally at home in the mind of a schoolboy or an 83-year-old war veteran. He excels when evoking the frustrated, yearning dream-world of adolescence, as in ‘Wild America’, the tale of an insecure teenage girl competing with her posher, prettier friend which, with its undercurrents of predatory sexual menace, echoes Joyce Carol Oates’ classic short story, ‘Where Are You going Where Have You Been ?’

Despite his laconic, unflinching style, Tower cares greatly about every one of his flawed, blind, struggling protagonists, whose predicaments are handled with tenderness and compassion.  His writing has wonderful natural rhythm and eye for detail, showing a particular feel for the raw materials of the native landscape. He can slow down time, framing scenes  in the readers’ eye with cinematic clarity and intensity. So spare is the style that when Tower does allow himself a moment of terse poetry, he lights up the page with a line you want to read out loud.  Tower even lets his hair down with the final, eponymous story – an inspired, David Foster Wallace-style romp about ageing Vikings who are tiring of the rape-and-pillage circuit.

With Everything Ravaged, WellsTower has distilled the achievements of a great literary and stylistic tradition and freshened it up with a post-modern glint in his eye. So addictive is his prose you will likely tear through this collection in a few short hours. This is a hugely enjoyable debut from an astounding young talent.

 

Leave a comment