Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

book by Wells Tower

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Short story collections are a tricky read. It’s difficult for one author to maintain the energy to move a collection along at the same reading pace as a novel. Frequently when reading a collection, I will put the book down every story or two, read entire other books and then go back to it when I’m strong enough to do more.

But with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower creates so many different voices so vividly that every new story is a new journey, has a different arc, a different pace or circumstance, and varies in voice in a way that I’ve never seen in one writer before. Here is a writer who pays attention to voice in meticulous detail: how each character talks and what this says about him or her, within narration, monologues or in dialogue.

I was fortunate enough to hear a reading and Q & A with the writer while at the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference last month. Tower had interviewed a man on a homeless basketball team while doing a larger story for a magazine. He  truncated two or three days of interviews into this man’s brick-face (Gabriel Garcia-Marquez spoke to the Paris Review of telling stories like his grandmother, with a “brick face,” letting the story do the work) account of his life. Tower captured not only his delivery and cadence, but the man’s character through how he talked and how plainly he stated the incredible life-changing things that happened to him.

It was this reading and Q &A that I took back to the book, and I turned my writers’ eye to the reading—this was a task, as the stories are brilliant at sucking you in and carrying you along seamlessly. The reason each of these many characters, from an aging huntsman to a teenage girl to a raiding Viking to a small boy—is so completely alive, was that each voice was utterly distinct and singular. Each voice told us more about the characters than their actions.

In “Wild America” Tower tells the story of two cousins, Jacey and Maya and, after describing their closeness through childhood, sums up their characters from Jacey’s point of view:

“Three weeks shy of sixteen, Maya had evolved into a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute, while Jacey still went round with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar.” (151)

In one sentence he nails a very female mortification of puberty, teenagehood, feelings of inadequacies, cousin comparison and awkwardness. By the second page of the story, because of her strong voice, we are fully in Jacey’s smack-talking but articulate court and are ready to follow her wherever she takes us.

But not every voice is articulate or careful, because that would be too easy. We learn so much about our narrator in the halting opening lines of “Door in Your Eye.”

“My daughter, the very first night I was in her house, she wanted right off to put me in a state of fear. I was not even through with my soup when she came out, very excited, with a stack of photographs.”(131)

We aren’t told until several pages later, about two thirds of the way through the story, that our narrator is in his early eighties. It’s his view on life, his spying on the neighbor woman whom he believes is a hooker, the manner in which he comes to conclusions and the peculiar way he puts things that brings him to life and brings us his age.

“I wanted so much to see the woman that I stayed on the porch for many hours, doing my art…I don’t know how the woman stood all the work she was doing. Men toe-ed and fro-ed along her steps all day and night, but in three days of watching, I hadn’t seen her.”(137)

But it’s not only in the voice of his narrators that Tower excels. He manages to bring a variety of characters into scenarios and bang them up against each other at high speeds. This captures, so accurately how chance gatherings work in life, how haphazard conversations can become and how everyone is not always being heard.

In “Executors of Important Energies,” Tower introduces us to a man and his father, who has Alzheimers, his stepmother who has a leaky eye which she explains, “Big Iranian bitch on my volleyball team. Stuck her finger down my eye. Seeing double now” (73)—just the use of the word “down” instead of “in” and her truncated explanation tell us so much about this woman—and Dwayne, a park chess-hustling, ex-trumpet player who lives in his car.

Dwayne’s take on hustling chess is carefully put, “Well, the game is a lucrative addiction. In my soul, I am a musician.”(79) Dwayne later explains,

“I did blow for Kenny (Loggins) on the European tour. My wife and me, we also blessed his outfit with some very beautiful backing vocals. Saw all the top destinations, stayed in fine hotels, rode all the major airlines, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic. I’m glad you brought it up. That was a happy time of life.” (81)

Dwayne’s gentle voice and his specific choice of words betray a man taking careful advantage of the very brief window in these self-absorbed people’s conversation to explain that he is much more than the chess hustler they made him out to be. This moment and this voice are an important setup to the end of the story, which I leave you to find on your own.

The careful work in Tower’s characterization, dialogue and voice made me stop in my tracks.  I find that my characters’ voices emerge from somewhere in my head, and as I revise my work I sort out inconsistencies (“that person wouldn’t say this”), and try to “listen” to them a bit further. But Everything Ravaged had me thinking about these voices in a new way, and of the many questions I hadn’t asked of my characters–reasons for their speech patterns, their history of interactions with other characters and their social backgrounds. Voice goes beyond verbal tics, it goes into the depth of character, character history, age and background, whether portraying a story in first person or in close third person or, as Tower uses in “The Leopard,” second person.

Tower has a knack for endings I haven’t seen before. So many short stories I read go to full closure, full redemption for their characters—the character changed, which is something repeated so often by writing teachers, but is not always the best place to leave a story.  Sometimes these people are never going to change, sometimes they are still on the same trajectory where we found them, or perhaps just about to step off it. Sometimes they wander around in the place in life where they are stuck and we are left to come to our own conclusions. And leaving a number of stories in different places throughout  this collection gave me more to chew on when I came away from each story. It recreated that feeling we so often get in life when friends wander out of our realm of consciousness. And we wonder…and that wondering brings them closer in our minds than perhaps an ending (happy or otherwise) or full closure would have. These characters are rattling around in my head a week after reading the collection.

I don’t want to go back to stories I’ve written and chop off the endings, because that’s not what happened here. These stories are very much complete. But Tower gives us a freedom to explore our characters’ lives in a messier, less pat way. To explore more natural patterns in conversation and in storytelling.

As to the title story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” I will need to leave it unexplored for your total enjoyment. Two accomplished writers I talked to who had read the collection asked eagerly, “Did you read the last story?” when I answered no, they both, at different times, shook their heads and said, “Read the last story…” Let’s just say it would need its own annotation and denying you the pleasure of that first unadulterated read would be criminal on my part.

Tower reminds us to listen. Maybe if we listen to people we encounter all the way, their tone and cadence will hold for us not only what area they’re from, but their upbringing, workplace, manner in which they relate to other people, insecurities and larger story. It is often how someone puts their personal monologue that tells us more than the words they are putting forth. Dialogue and narrator voice are not just something to let us know who characters are, they can carry layers of story within the larger story we tell. It is how our characters look at what is happening to them that reveals those careful slices of human-ness outside of the story.

So, when you’re out at a restaurant, a shop, at a party, or meeting new people remember to listen all the way, like the narrator of “Down Through the Valley” does as he catches an offhand conversation between two locals:

The waitress went by, and the boy called out to her. “Hey, Jenny. Your tits look happy tonight.”

“Yeah, well they’re crying on the inside,” she told him over her shoulder. (105)

Like Water for Elephants

book by Sara Gruen

Annotation by Lee Stoops

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants begins with an epigraph from Dr. Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg about the unfailing faithfulness of elephants. What follows is a fast, colloquially-written prologue that ends in violent murder as remembered by an old man. Needless to say, after three pages, I was hooked.

Of course, the prologue is a flash of something to which the reader will eventually return. Chapter one establishes the pace and mystery of the book. Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man living in an assisted care facility. He’s not sure of his age (he’s either ninety or ninety-three), he has a difficult time remembering the names of those caring for him, and he spends more time reliving his youth in his mind than cogitating in the present. His memories are not flash-backs or recollections. When he’s narrating as twenty-three year-old Jacob, he’s truthfully telling the story as it happens.

““It was something alright. I remember it like yesterday. Hell, I remember it better than yesterday”” (324).

Gruen succeeded in the telling of this story in three ways: 1) the perspective of her narrator (the story is told in first person by Jacob, both at twenty-three and ninety (or ninety-three)) is believable both in the presentation of the prose and the reality of his voice and person; 2) the ease with which dialogue is delivered offers the reader true voices and personalities; 3) the story is engaging, mysterious, and well-paced throughout.

Jacob is twenty-three years old for eighty-five percent of the narrative. The story begins with his parents’ tragic death, his losing everything because of their debt, his failing out of an ivy league veterinary school (days before graduation), and his jumping a traveling circus train. It all happens in depression-era America. Chronicling the traveling circus’s tour, its people, and the violence and darkness that exists within the community, Gruen masterfully dictates it all through Jacob’s eyes. The descriptions of scenes were powerful, but it was the interior exposition of Jacob that was so authentic. His emotional development, his naïve struggle with the ethics, morals, and relationships of the other characters, and his inability to put intention to finding himself and his way brought gritty realism to the pages. An example (Jacob, speaking about August who is the “equestrian director and superintendent of animals:” his boss):

“I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I’m beholden to him. I hate that I’m in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant. And most of all, I hate that I’ve let them both down. I don’t know if the elephant is smart enough to connect me to her punishment and wonder why I didn’t do anything to stop it, but I am and I do” (171).

Of course, the story is really about the elephant, Rosie, and August’s wife, Marlena, and what they mean to Jacob. I see it as a great feat that Gruen was able to, for lack of a better word, nail Jacob’s character.

Dialogue drives stories in a very specific, very powerful way. In a dialogue-heavy story, such as Water for Elephants, the story-teller can’t afford to leave any skill at home. Gruen’s dialogue in the story is present exactly as it needs to be. It’s charming in places, it’s colloquial in most (the language of the 1930’s traveling circus is one-of-a-kind), and it’s natural and flowing. There were places an aspiring writer may have been tempted to keep trying to make the characters speak. Gruen rejected that temptation, leaving just enough said. The story continues to weave seamlessly in and through the passages of conversation.

““Damn,” I say.

“What is it?” says Marlena.

I straighten up and reach for Silver Star’s foot. He leaves it firmly on the ground.

“Come on, boy,” I say, pulling on his hoof.

Eventually, he lifts it. The sole is bulging and dark, with a red line running around the edge. I set it down immediately.

“This horse is foundering,” I say.

“Oh dear God!” says Marlena, clapping a hand to her mouth.

“What?” says August. “He’s what?”

“Foundering,” I say. “It’s when the connective tissues between the hoof and the coffin bone are compromised and the coffin bone rotates toward the sole of the hoof.”

“In English, please. Is it bad?”

I glance at Marlena, who is still covering her mouth. “Yes,” I say.

“Can you fix it?”

“We can bed him up real thick, and try to keep him off his feet. Grass hay only and no grain. And no work.”

“But can you fix it?”

I hesitate, glancing quickly at Marlena. “Probably not.”

August stares at Silver Star and exhales through puffed cheeks” (171).

Not long after this exchange, the horse is put down, and then, because of lack of food or funds to buy any, and to the disgust of many, the dead horse is fed to the big cats. Gruen’s use of tags, vocal control, and character consistency in voicing gives the dialogue throughout the novel strength of form and progression of story. As a writer that loves and relies on dialogue, finding stories that use it so effectively is exciting.

Gruen’s story consists of darkness, mystery, and grittily precise use of sex, violence, and cruelty. But, these elements are only supplements to the overall story. The story is one of love; love in all its forms. It’s truth that Gruen brings to her fiction that drives Water for Elephants.

The Road

book by Cormac McCarthy

annotation by Lee Stoops

“As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road (57)

Chilling. Dark. Cold. Hopeless. And yet, The Road is full of love, regardless; both McCarthy’s love of a real story told well and the love a father and son share, even in the face of nothingness. The landscape is America, though the time is epitomic post-apocalyptic. Nothing remains but ash, broken, Spartan roads, and a few, hungry, desperate, withered people. Winter – and it’s not clear if it’s seasonal or nuclear – sets in and color long ago left the world. McCarthy paints a bleak, grim environment and ravages his characters with it. Yet, they never give up. They sustain each other entirely. And that sustenance is the point. Days without food or water, weeks on the road, sleepless and cold and knowing that the only other people alive are eating each other, and moving toward a goal simply for the sake of having a goal – none of these keep the story moving or give it its poignancy. Its strength, its very meaning, exists in the bond of love the father and his son share.

McCarthy’s intentions with the story are clear. He so much as eliminates visual, typeset elements of the page so that everything makes way for the truth of the prose. None of the dialogue is quoted, and only some the time is it tagged. The characters (the boy and his father) remain nameless for the entire story. No states are labeled, no nomenclature of town or geographic shows. Titles and places, even extra ink on the page for apostrophes or quotations, are unnecessary distractions in McCarthy’s vision.

“At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.

I’m really hungry, Papa.

I know.

Will we be able to find our stuff?

Yes. I know where it is.

What if somebody finds it?

They wont find it.

I hope they dont.

They wont. Come on.

What was that?

I didnt hear anything.

Listen.

I dont hear anything.

They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he said.

A dog?

Yes.

Where did it come from?

I dont know.

We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?

No. We’re not going to kill it.

He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (81-82).

McCarthy’s characters engage is continual dialogue, and the speech patterns and choices are masterful. Part of the story’s brilliance lies in the boy’s true form; he is a young boy, witness to a world devastated and lonely, but remaining a young boy. The father recognizes and pities his son’s innocence and forced loss, and he struggles to balance survivalism, reality, and compassion in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. McCarthy’s approach to developing the boy’s character through reflection and interaction with his “Papa” is one of the indicators that not a single element of The Road is accidental.

Devoid of chapter breaks, or even long scenes, the story reads like a close observer’s journal accounting of the pair’s journey. Most scenes, sequences, or flashbacks are only pieces on the pages, some spanning two or even several. The technique, if described, sounds choppy, like a series of false starts or gapped prose. However, in the case of The Road, it might not work any other way. The reader is trusted to intuit time, place, emotion, and pace. The story may jump from the man holding his son, protecting him while he sleeps, to a flashback to a time when the boy’s mother was still alive, to the next morning or even several days later. Despite the technique and things left unsaid, the disjointed style, rather than create a disjunct narrative, gives even more truth the story, to their lives, and to the experience as a whole.

“He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.

Yes. Of course.

Are we going to die?

Sometime. Not now.

And we’re still going south.

Yes.

So we’ll be warm.

Yes.

Okay.

Okay what?

Nothing. Just okay.

Go to sleep.

Okay.

I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?

Yes. That’s okay.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay” (10-11).

And, that’s what The Road is – an experience in life at its most uncertain, most hopeless, most true. As a reader, I read rapt. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down, even though I needed a hand free to make notes – recording everything he was doing right, when and how he was doing it, and why it worked everywhere it did. The story is spare, made rich by authentic characters and some of the strongest contemporary prose available. I closed the book, inspired and terrified, thinking, “This is what a story can do? This is what I can do with a story?” If Cormac ever reads this: Thank you.