“I actually don’t think i’m somebody with abiding zoological preoccupations,” says Wells Tower, who looks a little stricken as we parse the surprisingly large menagerie in his debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. But the animals can be hard to ignore. In “Retreat,” an ailing dog requires a human to “manually void its bladder via a Heimlich technique horrible to witness”; “The Brown Coast” sports both an alligator “with a deer’s face sticking out of its mouth” and a particularly murderous sea slug. “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy,” wrote Flannery O’Connor—but that really depends on what exactly is in the chicken yard, doesn’t it?
“In the summertime, the South becomes sort of monstrous,” the North Carolina–raised Tower concedes over drinks near his apartment in Greenpoint, his lips itching up in a half-smile. “And we weren’t families that were all that fastidious about lawn care.” Families, plural: Tower’s parents, both teachers, divorced when he was young. In the woods around their respective houses, kudzu grew up uncontested. His father’s house was so apocalyptically grim that it later spawned a Washington Post magazine story, “The Restoration,” which began like this: “Several years ago, while I was walking through my father’s kitchen, I noticed a beetle dying on the countertop.” I consider pointing out this mordant animal cameo to Tower, too, but think better of it.
Tower no longer spends much time in North Carolina, although he owns a house there. College at Wesleyan, a stint in Portland, a return home, and an MFA jag at Columbia followed high school. While at Columbia and afterward, Tower worked as a magazine writer, profiling long-haul truckers, compulsive gamblers, and the like for Harper’s and The Washington Post. A steady drip of fiction, published over the last decade in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere, eventually added up to enough for a book.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, out next week, is a peculiar, visceral debut. Fathers express love and loathing to their sons in equal measure: “Burt, fight to death before you let somebody put you in his car” is what passes for paternal wisdom in “Executors of Important Energies,” a story that chronicles—with brutal, excruciating clarity—the last undoing of a parent in his son’s eyes. “Either way, you’re probably dead, and believe me, it’s better to check out before they get creative on you.” Seemingly random acts radiate enormous menace. In “Down Through the Valley,” a man, Ed, is forced to take a long car ride with his young daughter, Marie, and his wife Jane’s new lover, Barry. “The sky was going dark,” writes Tower, “when Marie bent over in her seat and did a strange thing. She leaned her head down and put her lips on the gearshift. She got the whole thing in her mouth and it stretched her jaw open all the way. A ribbon of slobber slid down onto the gear boot and twinkled in the green glow of the dashboard.” Her father, repulsed, tries to pull her off. “It’s all right, Ed,” says Barry. “Jane and I let her do that on long trips. The vibrations relax her.”
There is always, just off the margins, a kind of dread and cruelty lurking, waiting to burst onto the page. Tower is a burgeoning master of articulating the weird shapes our private fears take when they become public—or real. The ambient unease of “Down Through the Valley” soon erupts past terror into violence, displaced onto a bystander. There and elsewhere, the author is eerily, painfully adept at observing the exact moment of our own self-destruction, when the implicit becomes horribly overt.
The title story, Tower’s most bighearted and sentimental, is not coincidentally the one in which the violence is least sublimated: The story chronicles the marital and pillaging difficulties of a roaming band of blood-soaked Vikings. “I guess I’m just drawn to people who defeat themselves,” says Tower, picking out the common thread. “People who really want human connection, or who want a safe harbor, but can never have that, or somehow fuck that up.”
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $24
Spring Books Picks
By Nelson George, April
This memoir by the early and influential rap critic (turned TV producer) Nelson George follows what might be called the Fortress of Solitude trajectory: autobiography by way of the arts. Music history (James Brown, Russell Simmons) collides with family history (a difficult sister, an absentee father) collides with the cultural history of New York City itself. George could easily have borrowed an older book title from his own bibliography: Hip Hop America. Viking, 248 pp., $25.95
The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty, Revised and Expanded
By Dave Hickey, April
Originally published in 1993, Dave Hickey’s inflammatory art-criticism collection The Invisible Dragon was quickly taken out of print by its own author. This uncharacteristically shy gesture (Hickey remembers facing “the very real possibility of being shot by both sides in the culture war”) has now been remedied. The rascal art critic includes a new work, the conciliatory “American Beauty”—otherwise, Hickey “still believes everything he wrote in the first four essays. He just can’t believe he wrote them.” University of Chicago Press, 123 pp., $22
My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness
By Adina Hoffman, April
This new biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali by Adina Hoffman, a trenchant critic living in Jerusalem, is subtitled A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century. Hoffman situates her subject’s story in the larger framework of the region’s recent and tortured history: Ali’s childhood village was bombed in ’48, leading to a brief exile in Lebanon, and then a return to Nazareth, where this self-educated, obscure poet still runs a souvenir shop that sells trinkets to tourists. Yale University Press, 480 pp., $27.50
By Frederick Seidel, April
Frederick Seidel, the dashing 73-year-old poet, has made an elegant subject out of himself these past 50 years, accessories very much included: Ducati bikes, the Carlyle Hotel, Diane Von Furstenberg. But beware—at the edges of the sumptuous comfort of Seidel’s poems are both an excoriating loneliness and a pitiless eye. This book should cement a growing consensus that there are few poets writing in English as talented as he. “I spent most of my time not dying,” Seidel wrote in 2006’s Ooga-Booga. “That’s what living is for.” FSG, 352 pp., $30
By Colson Whitehead, April
Colson Whitehead grew up in New York City and would go out in the summer to the traditionally African-American enclave of Sag Harbor, at the East End of Long Island, where he’d run nerd-wild. This novel, his fourth, is his most autobiographical, though in the least sentimental way possible, populated as it is with Cinemax porn, New Coke, and D&D. “I never liked Holden Caulfield,” he says in an entertaining online trailer for Sag Harbor. “I feel like if you’d just given him Prozac or an X-Box, it would’ve been a much shorter book.” Doubleday, 288 pp., $24.95
The Shanghai Gesture
By Gary Indiana, April
This enormously playful seventh novel from Gary Indiana is a riff on Sax Rohmer’s infamously effeminate and evil villain, Fu Manchu, and the two “medicament”-addicted Sherlock Holmes types who attempt to stop him. The sarcastic, unyielding fury that permeated last year’s criticism collection Utopia’s Debris is here, too, but sublimated: Narcolepsy, an astonishingly degraded Holiday Inn, and a ship called The Ardent Somdomite feature prominently. Two Dollar Radio, 224 pp., $15.50
Love and Obstacles
By Aleksandar Hemon, May
Like the protagonist of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project (2008) and, indeed, like Hemon himself, a Bosnian-born writer famously stranded in Chicago on the eve of war in 1992 Yugoslavia, the narrator of Love and Obstacles is a man who can’t go home. Though the gods of exile literature lurk—Conrad, Nabokov—Hemon’s newest interlocking story collection is unified as much by his hero’s wildly vulgar, incisive mind as by any pervasive sense of displacement. Riverhead, 224 pp., $25.95
The Naked Eye
By Yoko Tawada, May
The Tokyo-born Berlin resident Yoko Tawada wrote The Naked Eye in both Japanese and German, and it’s her first full-length novel to be translated into English. In the book, a Vietnamese girl goes to East Berlin to present a paper in Russian about American imperialism and finds herself promptly kidnapped into Story of O–reminiscent sexual slavery. She’s eventually freed, sort of, and like Binx Bolling (or Vikar, the protagonist of Steve Erickson’s Zeroville), escapes to the movies: Each chapter takes its title and theme from a different Catherine Deneuve film. New Directions, 256 pp., $13.95