I talk a lot about the prescience of Don Delillo's White Noise, and I think writers like Tower, Chris Bachelder, Joshua Ferris, and others have grabbed onto what was true about White Noise and carried it out in their fiction (each in different ways, of course). For Wells Tower (god I wish I had a name as cool as Wells Tower), it's about the utter placelessness that modern American culture has given us, both in our familial relationships and our larger role in society.
Maybe that paints too bleak of a picture; there's a certain workaday hope running throughout these stories too, particularly in "Executors of Important Energies," "Leopard," "Door in Your Eye," and the hilarious title story, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned." That hope is always tempered and used as a buffer against the reality of the situation, but it's there, and it's human, and it's meaningful to this reader, at least. "Executors of Important Energies" is a good example. It is a story of a son whose father has no memory, a father who calls the cops on his wife several times a week and chooses to invite a slovenly, overweight chess hustler to a nice dinner with the family he no longer really recognizes. The father says of the main character's stepmother, "I don't know who this woman is, and I don't know why she's in my house with me. But I'll be honest with you. I think I'd like to try and fuck her." This sentence, to me, is as heartbreaking as it is funny, and the story unfolds this way, with the father saying unpleasant things and bringing an unpleasant person to dinner until his wife walks out. The hope– the redemption, really– in this story is so small that you may not even see it, but it's there in the closing lines, as the chess hustler drives them around in his piss-soaked car looking for the wife:
The impact sent swaying the load of junk and bangles hanging from Dwayne's rearview– Mardi Gras beads, feathered gewgaws, sports medallions– and my father watched the swinging mess with all the fascination of an infant watching the mobile over his crib. He reached out and caught hold of a miniature New Mexico license plate. He frowned at the embossed letters reading "Land of Enchantment.""What is this?" he asked."It's just some bullshit I picked up on the road," said Dwayne."No, this word here, 'enchantment.' What's that mean, again?""Shit," said Dwayne. "You know what charm is, Roger?""Of course," my father said."It's like that, like charm."My father leaned against me, studying the orange Braille. "Land of Charm," he said.
Tower relishes in good details and well-constructed sentences that reveal a deep understanding of human relationships. Bob Monroe's affair in "The Brown Coast" is discovered because of a footprint on his car windshield that does not match his wife's. In "Retreat," a character would rather eat likely-spoiled meat than admit to being wrong. A sentence I wrote down in my journal, which I stupidly neglected to put a page number with, goes like this: "She would often call just to sigh at me for two hours on the phone, wanting me to applaud her depth of feeling." These are the kinds of things we do, and Tower captures them perfectly.
I've got to give special notice to the title story, which is about middle-aged Vikings who are tired of pillaging. It's a little out of left field, but it fits perfectly with the misfit nature of all of the characters in these stories. The men are ready to settle into an agrarian life, but the newer Vikings won't allow it, and they're excited to keep the tradition of rape and beheading alive while the older Vikings are dragged along to row the ships and grumble. They talk with modern working-class vernacular and are kind of hilariously put-upon by the whole process; while the leader is pulling a villager's lungs out from behind ("Oh lord, is he doing a blood eagle?"), the main characters look at each other, sigh, and decide to find a nice spot in the sun to relax.
The story, as with most of the stories in the collection, has a lot to say about the shift of power that occurs generationally and the strange middle ground of early adulthood, which brings me back to my birthday. I'm 29, well beyond the age of it being acceptable to walk around a party with my own case of beer, but not yet old enough to be excited about a lawnmower purchase. 29 is no-man's-land, and most of the angst of being 29–in life as in these stories–centers around finding ways to make that okay, or finding ways to ignore it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go play videogames for the next six hours.
Recommended follow-ups if you dig Wells Tower: Don Delillo, White Noise; Joshua Ferris, Then We Came to the End; Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever; Justin Cronin, Mary and O'Neill