There’s a great moment in “Retreat,” a new short story by Wells Tower. Two brothers have been out deer hunting on a chilly island in Maine. They haven’t bagged anything, and they’re wet and cranky. But just as they’re packing up for the day, one spies an enormous moose. He takes a shot and brings it down. “The effect,” writes Tower of the struggling, fatally wounded animal, “was of a very old person trying to pitch a heavy tent. It tried to stand, and fell, and tried, and fell, and then gave up its strivings.”
That’s an elegant description, and not a bad metaphor for the characters in many of the short stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Picador, 238 pages, $14). Like the moose, Tower’s characters are hobbled. They repeatedly try to do the right thing or save themselves. They try, and fail, and try, and fail, and finally give up trying. In the title story, a medieval Viking, Harald, reluctantly returns to pillage Lindisfarne, a town he helped sack only a year previously. In “Wild America,” an overweight teen, Jacey, watches as the boy she covets falls for her best friend, the more attractive Maya. To avenge herself on the pair, Jacey takes up with a drifter, who nearly molests her. The music in these stories isn’t the plot; it’s the atmosphere of high danger and low expectations. Jacey knows she will never be lithe like Maya. Her legs, she observes, are “bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve.” So what, she implicitly reasons, does she have to lose?
At its best, the prose is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor, although as a general rule, the stories work when the language works. In “Leopard,” Tower tries to write his way into the mind of an 11-year-old misfit. It’s likely that at some point the author was just such a misfit, yet the idiolect is off, and the story is leaden. Mostly, however, Tower’s language is electric, rendering perfectly the blend of courtroom jargon, Bible verses, Horatio Alger novels and daytime TV shows that constitute our modern American lexical inheritance. Thus phrases like “no-warranty arrangement,” “fire in your gut,” “amicable divorces,” “life’s traditional rewards,” “mature plantings,” “astral tour” and “banking returns” can coexist in a single, very impressive paragraph.
SEE IT: Wells Tower reads from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Feb. 8. Free.