The latest report from my To Be Read Reading Challenge is the first of the short story collections on my list that I’ve finished. It took me a little longer than I expected, in part because I tried to take a piece of my own advice and read a bit here and there, not taking on a book cover to cover. So I started Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower at the same time I started ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind. I enjoyed jumping back between the three books and getting a taste for each, but at a certain point, the Wells Tower book jumped to the fore as my favourite, and I couldn’t help reading straight through.
This lack of overwhelming bleakness largely comes from Tower’s ability to paint a scene and to use words to make you see things—sometimes very mundane things—in entirely new ways. When David Sedaris was in Halifax this past fall on a book tour, he took the time to recommend the work of another author to the audience. The book he recommended was Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. One of his major reasons for praising it was Towers’ way with words: to shock, to paint a vivid picture, to make you laugh out loud. Though the characters face immensely difficult situations, you can’t separate the action from the charm and craft of the writing.
The last story of the collection (which shares its name with the book) is a great example of this. The story of a Viking raid on Lindisfarne, it’s full of blood and violence, but also humanity and humour. It’s also the only historical piece in the book, but the voices of the characters have a very modern feel. It works really well for the piece, which ends up feeling like a well crafted Viking gangster movie.
These aren’t easy story though, and it’s their unwillingness to just hand over their message to you, that makes them great stories. Sometimes when I’m at home listening to music, my dog will tilt his head and look at the stereo speakers as if trying to figure out what could possibly be going on. He seems fascinated but confused: a pretty good comparison for how I felt while reading Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories never quite end the way you think they will, and sometimes you wonder if they’ve ended at all, but they leave vivid images in your mind, and leave you thinking about the characters and situations for days.
Wells Tower, who is originally from Vancouver, was named one of the New Yorker’s 20 authors under 40 last year. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was named one of the New York Times 100 notable books of 2009. It might not be the lightest book you’ll tackle this summer, but it certainly deserves a place on your reading list.
If you’ve already read and enjoyed Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned you might also try the short story Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock (also described as gritty and arresting but with humour) or The Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever (less graphic but from a similarly gifted writer of the short story form).