In Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis —that classic essay on the origins of American republicanism—the historian pauses over a description of what happens to the pioneer when civilization catches up to him. It comes from an 1830s guide to the West. “He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits … till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The preemption law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he ‘breaks for the high timber,’ ‘clears out for the New Purchase,’ or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over.”
This anti-social frontiersman with his elbows out is the guiding spirit of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a short-story collection by Wells Tower. Though not exactly new to the literary scene—his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Harper’s—he has now published his first book, and suitably enough, it forges into the wilder regions of the American character in lucid, vernacular prose.
The title story, set during the Viking era, is simultaneously unlike anything else in the collection and the best example of what Tower is up to. The characters are, yes, marauding Vikings who attack a neighboring island without provocation. Although Harald, the narrator, feels he has outgrown the whole rape-and-pillage game, and although his wife urges him to stay home, he hops on the longboat and then watches as his compatriots go “on a real binge,” hanging monks from trees.
The pathos in this story comes not from the brutality itself, but from Harald’s curious detachment, which he conveys in riveting sentences. Here’s his description of a grotesque ritual called the “blood eagle”:
[Djarf] placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod’s spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he’d made an incision about a foot long. …Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings. I had to turn away myself.
Tower’s precise rendition of this grisly surgery—the crunch of the ribs, the image of Djarf fumbling around Naddod’s innards, the lungs flapping like wings—builds to Harald’s understated response, as if to a paper cut. He’s the pillager-as-spectator, caught in the limbo between true callousness and true feeling, trapped—despite his longboat—in his passivity.
Marauding is a practical necessity (“Once you back down from one job, you’re lucky if they’ll even let you put in for a flat-fee trade escort”), and, besides, it’s less “crazy-making” than domestic life, because the latter is so precarious. As Harald notes in the melancholy last paragraph, “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. … [S]till you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.” Hearth and home, wife and children are simply not as durable as oars and steel.
The Vikings, of course, are really Americans—invading a tiny country for no apparent reason. And all the American characters in the collection are Vikings—randomly violent, tough, and dangerous to know—just on a smaller scale. They are real-estate developers, carpenters, and entrepreneur inventors, bumbling through life, alienating their spouses, relatives, and friends. Tower isn’t the first writer to document the anti-social American spirit, but he’s a keen observer of how the drive to break out of confinement rarely leads to true release. Like Harald, Tower’s other characters—for the most part—do love their families, but they constantly find themselves striking out alone. And their missions have a way of backfiring.
Take Matthew, the narrator in “Retreat,” a thrice-married real-estate developer who has “lived and profited in nine American cities” and just recently bought a small mountain in Maine. Since childhood, he’s had a tense relationship with his brother, Stephen, but after six strong drinks, “our knotty history unkinks itself into a sad and simple thing. I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we’ve spent lost to each other.” He invites Stephen up for a weekend hunting trip with the best intentions but antagonizes him compulsively: He’s late for the airport pickup, and their reunion starts off with a fight. Back at his cabin, he pressures Stephen to spend his life savings on a real-estate venture, then storms off to bed. When Stephen tries to communicate his sense of loneliness, Matthew lets out “a long, low fart.”
These cruelties are uniformly petty: just so many paper cuts. Yet the cumulative effect is excruciating for Stephen, as well as for the reader watching Matthew ruin the weekend. Not least, they are excruciating for Matthew himself, who succeeds only in walling himself off. In the final scenes, Matthew shoots a moose and feels momentarily elated. But the meat is spoiled: “[T]here was a slight pungency to it, a dark diarrheal scent gathering in the air.” While Stephen laughs it off, vowing to hunt again the next day, Matthew stubbornly eats his putrid steak—a bizarre bid to deny the fruitlessness of their trip, which becomes yet another point of separation between the two brothers.
Many of Tower’s protagonists are so hypermasculine they’re Hemingway-esque. Yet one of his best-drawn characters is Jacey, the teenage girl in “Wild America.” The title is lightly comic, setting the reader up for another story like “Retreat.” What’s “wild” here is not a geographic area—although much of the action takes place in a state forest. It’s the catty competition between Jacey, “with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar,” and her cousin, Maya, “a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute.” Their casus belli is Leander, an unhygienic boy with no trace of his namesake’s seductive warmth, whom Jacey kissed recently at the local planetarium. When the three set off together for a walk, Maya first plays the part of wingwoman, talking up Jacey’s accomplishments, but soon tires of that role and starts to flirt with Leander.
Tower’s portrayal of Jacey’s reaction is pitch-perfect: Unable to compete with Maya, she lashes out in an agonizingly childish but still hurtful way. “[W]hy don’t you just go off somewhere and fuck? I mean, there’s all kinds of bushes and stuff around here for you all to fuck in. … She’ll totally do it. She’s a pretty big slut.” All Jacey can do after her outburst is run off alone: Tension leads quickly to ferocity, then to the fantasy of isolation. Adventure thwarted, Jacey wants to “go back to the afternoon dark of her mother’s house and watch TV and eat Triscuit crackers topped with cheddar cheese and a pickle coin.” But she feels “Maya and Leander’s eyes on her, watching her loiter on the bank like a fool” and doesn’t have the guts to “let them see her heading home.” She’s the classic adolescent and the classic Tower character—deeply ambivalent about human bonding, she tries to break away and finds herself trapped.
Turner’s pioneer is aggressive by necessity: To succeed, he acquired, in Turner’s phrasing, “that coarseness and strength … that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil.” Tower’s characters have inherited the frontier mentality, but the wilderness they’re taking on is no longer a physical space: It’s other people and themselves. Their aggression is not so much willed as impelled, and while the pioneer at least creates something—a cabin, then a town—before leaving it all behind, Matthew, Jacey, and the rest only tear things down. Nor does Tower give them the solacing illusion that in this destructive process, they are claiming their freedom. It’s a bleak state of affairs, alleviated for the reader—though not for pillagers themselves—by the sharp, brutal clarity of the author’s prose.