Here they are: the brawling brothers, mean step-fathers and usurping uncles that make up the menfolk of America today. We XYs don't come out of Wells Tower's short stories too well. We're unhappy or, worse still, total strangers to happiness. Add a cast of murderous clowns, predatory paedophiles and bloodthirsty Vikings, and we're lucky to make it out alive.
The title of his first short story collection tells you lots, but not all, of what you need to know about the world of Wells Tower. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is disturbing and dramatic. Of the nine stories, all bar one – the title story – are set in contemporary America. His is a sadly familiar world of financial crisis, failing families and Christians anxious about Harry Potter. But, like David Foster Wallace, Tower taps into what lies beneath, often comically. There are dazzling points of light and compassion in the darkness.
In "Brown Coast", a bereaved son is sent by his greedy uncle to an island to exorcise his sadness by renovating a guesthouse. It's no paradise. "The land here met water in a steeply sloping apron of mud that sang with mosquitoes and smelled terribly of fart gas," says Bob. Work, as it is for most men, is just "picking shit up and putting shit down." Hope comes from the sea in the form of fabulous fish that Bob admires in an aquarium. They, like him, are "strays and accidentals, stuff that don't belong here". Then one fish kills the others. His uncle steals his wife. Bob is marooned.
Futility floods these tales. In "Retreat" a music therapist is sick of banging tambourines with the disabled. "I feel like I am going at life like a bumblebee trying to fuck a ball bearing. Pointless." Bitter or not, we're grateful for such laughs. In "Wild America", a girl, one of the few in this book, is crushed that her cousin is dancing away from their small town to ballet school. She feels bound for a "life of poverty and disgrace". She's so busy being angry that she almost allows herself to be abducted by one of the tattooed strangers cruising these pages. "Fight to the death before you let somebody put you in his car," one father warns his son in "Executors of Important Energies". "Either way, you're probably dead, and believe me, it's better to check out before they get creative on you."
Tower is most creative on us in "On the Show". Only one thing can happen to a pretty young boy at the fairground in this dark morality tale. Hiding from a bully, he is found by a monster worse than anything in the Haunted House. Predictable enough, but the real horror is his father's disbelief: "He believes Henry is a dishonest boy, that his beauty has made him as vindictive and conniving as a movie star ... He would suspect the boy of lying now, of deliberately trying to ruin his date, but that Henry is missing his underwear and one of his shoes."
Tower left a steady journalism job to join a travelling show. Leaving and the luridly carnivalesque are recurring themes. He revels in describing a baby pigeon as a "half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute". It is sometimes too much, almost Grand Guignol. He truly shocks when returning to his restrained reporting style as he does in "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned". Vikings visit Lindisfarne on a pillaging minibreak in this final tale (told in the vernacular, somewhat unconvincingly). By the end of this book, you may well be as jaded as the Viking warriors who only stop killing for lunch.