I came to myself in a dark wood: A review of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Wow–I’m now reading Wells Tower’s amazing Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a book of nine short stories.

How can you resist this beginning?

Bob Munroe woke up on his face… Now cracker bits were all over him–under his bare chest, stuck in the sweaty creases of his elbows and his neck, and the biggest and worst of them he could feel lodged deep into his buttock crack, like a flint arrowhead somebody had shot in there.

His language is masculine and his stories are dark and violent, but there are the most beautiful, graceful images in there, too. Like Dwayne, the chess hustler: “His front tooth was broken at an angle, a tiny gray guillotine.” Or his description of a sea cucumber: “She was holding a glass salad bowl filled with water. A brown speckled thing lay on the bottom. Its spongy body was studded with thorny reddish nodes; to Bob, it looked like the turd of someone who’d been eating rubies.”

I’m about halfway through the book. All the main characters are men lost in the middle of their lives. Their wives have left them, they’re out of work, things are falling apart.

These stories reminds me in many ways of the opening of Dante’s Inferno:

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost…
I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way.

(From the Durling edition.)

There are the numerous surprising—and most likely coincidental—literal parallels. The first story begins with Bob waking up to himself—his body strange, his arms asleep (“He tried to move them, and it was like trying to push a coin with your mind.”), in a new place. As Bob begins to move around, it seems as though he’s waking up from a Rip Van Winkle-esque sleep of years, rather than from a night’s sleep. Meanwhile, the second story’s narrator is actually in the woods. He’s staying alone in an unfinished cabin on a mountain he’s recently bought in Maine, watching the “sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range.” Another story documents the narrator’s descent into a valley, as he drives his ex-wife’s injured boyfriend home from a meditation center in the forest. So, yes, the characters are very literally lost in the woods, very literally waking to themselves.

Of course, many literary works begin in this way. Even Dante’s opening line acknowledges this, using “our”—the pilgrim stands in for us all. Waking up in your life to find yourself lost is not new, but in Tower’s biting stories, it feels fresh.

Despite the similarities between all the angry, lonely male narrators, they don’t run together, and I don’t tire of them. Instead, I wake up with them. Because of Tower’s precise, gorgeous, violent language, I am more than willing to descend with these men into the mess of their lives.

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