Literary Fiction for Tough Guys

Wells Tower’s stunning Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a collection of short stories manly enough for the ESPN-watchin’, moose-huntin’ segment of population. But will they buy it?

03.18.09 8:54 AM ET

Wells Tower writes short stories for men—real men, guys who could kill dinner if they had to, guys who savor a solid sentence about engine-repair: “Derrick hadn’t positioned the tensioner correctly before torquing down the pivot bolt.” Tensioner! Pivot bolt! Such tough-nut writing recalls the late greats, Hemingway, Mailer, Carver, and it gets the men’s magazines excited—Esquire recently gave Tower a full-page salute. But does it find an audience? Announcing a new and exciting male short-story writer is like announcing a new and exciting vegan restaurant in Dallas—you’re talking to a small customer base.

Announcing a new and exciting male short-story writer is like announcing a new and exciting vegan restaurant in Dallas.

But here goes. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24) are the most arresting I’ve read in some time. Tower is adept at capturing the many ways men can be unhappy, lonely, stymied or adrift, and his language has the virtuoso inventiveness of Barry Hannah, that magic-trick quality that can make a description of an overcast sky feel new and strange: “The sun glared down through the gray sky like a flashlight behind a sheet.” His characters come across like aliens, possessing the kind of maverick weirdness that marks them as real people rather than types. A 15-year-old girl is “a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute.” Even a stray stepfather with a two-page walk-on gets to be his own man: “A retired pharmacist pushing 70, he spent his days in the backyard greenhouse, where he grew tournament peonies, their blossoms red and heavy as beef hearts.”

Tower’s prose is baroque with metaphor, show-offy stuff, but he’s also got a knack for pacing and a hell of a sense of humor. I so enjoyed “The Brown Coast,” the collection’s first story, I read it twice before proceeding through the rest of the book. Bob Munroe is enduring one of life’s bad spells on a dilapidated Southeastern coastline, suffering a male brand of mid-life ennui Tower aptly calls “angry lassitude.” Bob meets a married couple next door, a pair of big-hearted misfits, as lonely for company as he is. The three of them drink vodka cocktails, go for a skinny dip, and cook up some fish cheeks—not much happens, but the story envelops you with its easy banter and its warm feeling of loneliness abated.

The next one, “Retreat,” is another stunner, a sad, angry tale of brotherly spite. Matthew Lattimore invites his starving-artist brother Stephen out to rural Maine to hunt, get drunk, and maybe to rope him into a lousy real-estate deal. They snipe at each other, drawing blood the way brothers know how, but also magnifying the other’s happiness when Matthew improbably brings down a moose with a long-range shot. What follows are lustily detailed passages of wilderness butchery—“I bled the moose from the throat, and then made a slit from the bottom of the rib cage to the jaw, revealing the gullet and a pale, corrugated column of windpipe”—and what looks to be a world-class meal. No dice. The ending wallops you with a sadness you should have seen coming.

It’s hard to deny the sheer stylistic music of the title story, a George Saunders-esque tale of marauding Vikings, several of whom, cutely, have tired of rape and plunder. It must be fun to hear Tower read the story’s let-‘er-rip sentences aloud: “A turncoat Norwegian monk named Naddod had been big medicine on the dragon-and-blight circuit for the last decade or so, and was known to bring heavy ordnance for whoever could lay out some silver.”

Still, for my money, a quieter entry like “Door in Your Eye,” with less flashy alliteration and fewer pitter-pat rhythms, shows Tower at his best. An old man is laid up in his daughter’s house without much to do. He passes the time painting watercolors of the weather into his diary, dreaming of his youth, and watching johns go in and out of a prostitute’s shabby house across the street. His curiosity builds and builds until he talks himself into paying her a visit. What passes between them is hilarious and unexpectedly sweet.

I’m finishing this review on a plane, flying back from a long-weekend’s vacation, and I can see plenty of men in the seats around me, men who would surely nod their head in fraternal appreciation at the clarity and insight in Wells Tower’s guy-centric fiction. Alas, they’re busy with their James Patterson, their John Grisham, their little backseat screens broadcasting ESPN. Tower, I feel your pain. But I know at least five guys who read literary fiction (most of them, of course, are writers themselves). They have friends, who have friends, who have friends. You know, I bet if we started some kind of phone tree we could get some real numbers together. Grill up some moose steaks. Have a party.

Taylor Antrim is the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.