“Being a human being isn’t just all misery and despair. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy.”
Sitting in his sunny apartment in Greenpoint about six weeks ago, the short story writer Wells Tower was explaining why he’s not that into books that relentlessly punish their characters in the service of illustrating the brutality of life on earth.
“The real struggle, I think, is getting to a place where you can be believably generous to a character, where you can show somebody fumbling for redemption in a way that’s believable and not stupid,” Mr. Tower said, his shoulders square and his hands playing with each other on the kitchen table. “I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.”
Despite its title, Mr. Tower manages to salvage rather a lot in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the collection of short stories he has just published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book is a triumph of a debut—not just believably generous, but revelatory in its rendering of all the different kinds of hurt that a human being can sustain in the course of a life. The characters that populate Everything Ravaged experience humiliation, loneliness, and anger in all their varieties, and their wounds are described by Mr. Tower with unflinching affection and tenderness. These are stories about people, mostly men, succumbing to their weaknesses– resentful sons, first husbands, angry brothers, all of them somehow guilty or deformed but all trying, clumsily, to either make someone happy or be in love or just for once not feel really disappointed.
Incredibly, the book opens with the first short story Mr. Tower ever wrote, the delicate and impeccably paced “The Brown Coast.” It was composed during the author’s first year in the Columbia fiction program and published, against all odds, in the spring 2002 issue of The Paris Review after someone there discovered it in the slush pile. (“Down Through the Valley,” which Mr. Tower submitted to the Paris Review at the same time as “The Brown Coast,” was actually published first, in the fall of 2001).
Like most of Mr. Tower’s work, including the long-form journalism he’s written over the past five years for The Washington Post Magazine and Harper’s, “The Brown Coast” is full of magnificent descriptions and imagery that recast the material world in completely unfamiliar—and yet intuitive—terms. A man sleeps on the floor, “quietly honking in his slumber.” Another takes a drink of champagne and vodka and recoils as a “sour heat” blooms in his belly. A half-hearted extramarital affair is said to have had “no joy in it, just a two-week spate of drab skirmishes in a basement apartment that smelled heavily of cat musk.” Reading stuff like this, you realize nothing—no experience, no feeling, no sound, no smell–has been described for the last time.
Prior to his enrollment in the Columbia MFA program in the fall of 2000, Mr. Tower, now 35, had spent much of his adult life playing guitar in a punk band called Hellbender, which formed in 1991 when he was a senior in high school and persevered for six years even as all three members shipped off to different colleges. Named after the giant species of salamander, Hellbender also included Mr. Tower’s lifelong best friend Harrison Haynes, now a painter and the drummer in the rock band Les Savy Fav, and a guy named Al Burian, now best known for his celebrated zine, Burn Collector. Starting in 1993, Mr. Tower and Mr. Burian published a zine together called Foodbox. This served as the primary outlet for Mr. Tower’s writerly inclinations until he got a job at the University of North Carolina Urban Planning Department and convinced his boss there to let him write the monthly newsletter. As he put it, “I was just dying to do something where I got to write sentences.”
Opportunities for this in North Carolina were slim, but Mr. Tower flew to the one beacon of light in the vicinity like a mosquito, and got himself hired at DoubleTake, the now defunct but beloved literature and photography magazine run out of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. “I just went over and gave them my resume and pleaded with them to give me any sort of job,” Mr. Tower said. “They gave me a job as night manager, which entailed going over there and locking up and watering the plants. From there I started writing some of their press releases.
Printed on beautiful, heavy stock and featuring work from such writers as Tobias Wolff, Ian Frazier, and William Maxwell, DoubleTake was, according to Mr. Tower, not just the only game in town but a truly hot commodity. He was ecstatic to be anywhere near it, regardless of his actual duties.
He rose quickly, though, and by the time the magazine was stripped of its funding and relocated to Boston, Mr. Tower was overseeing its Web site and sitting in on editorial meetings. Instead of following the magazine to Boston, though, he followed one of its former editors, David Rowell, to The Washington Post Magazine and pitched him a piece about what it’s like to work for a traveling carnival. Though Mr. Tower had exactly zero reporting experience, Mr. Rowell took a chance on him– in part because of their shared affection for Joseph Mitchell, Richard Yates, and Raymond Carver– and in so doing, set the stage for a run of richly reported long-form pieces that are knuckle for knuckle on par with Mr. Tower’s fiction stylistically and emotionally.
According to Mr. Rowell, the magazine pieces Mr. Tower wrote for him unmistakably informed many of his short stories, and share with them some central preoccupations.
“Wells is great about taking you into these worlds that you’ve never really considered before, whether it’s long-haul trucking or the people who work at Walmart or a classical music piano competition,” Mr. Rowell said in an interview. “His characters have these great visions of how things should be, and it’s very difficult for them to get to that place. These are characters who are often down on their luck—there’s a kind of disappointment that spills into their lives that they are trying to rise above.”
For the four or so years that followed Mr. Tower’s stay at the Columbia MFA program, he all but forgot his fiction, and spent almost all his time traveling from place to place reporting pieces for The Washington Post Magazine and Harper’s. At one point he and his agent, Heather Shroeder at ICM, were even thinking he should do a non-fiction book, possibly one about the Mexican border.
By the spring of 2007, however, Mr. Tower decided once and for all that his heart was with the stories he’d written before journalism took over his life—a number of which had been published, in the meantime, in magazines of varying prominence. His agent sent out his materials shortly thereafter, and two weeks later, much to his surprise, the editor Courtney Hodell of FSG came back saying she’d love to work with him.
These days, Mr. Tower has been trying to focus, and with the exception of dinners and the occasional book party, he spends his time in solitude working in his apartment either in front of his non-fiction desk, which is hooked up to the internet, or his fiction desk, which isn’t. Sometimes he works at the main branch of the New York Public Library, which he recently discovered has a secret room reserved for people with book contracts.
“I’m trying to be better about jotting things down and being more writerly about everyday stuff that goes on in my life,” Mr. Tower said. “But when you’re spending 80% of your time just holed up in here, it’s like, oh, there’s a new smell in the hall today.” He said he feels kind of guilty for being such a hermit. “I tend to really cut myself off. It’s not a good thing. You wind up getting sort of crotchety and pissy. Your friends call up and just want to get together for dinner and it’s like, ‘oh Jesus,’ and you feel so put upon. You get really obnoxious and particular about your time.”
He does have rather a lot on his plate: in addition to the novel in-progress that FSG acquired with his stories (which he wouldn’t comment on, other than to say it’s about family), he is also writing a film script, a reported piece for Harper’s about the Homeless World Cup, a story set in the year 2024 for an upcoming issue of McSweeney’s, and a feature for the travel Web site Outside Online about inner-tubing inspired by John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.”
This last thing is funny actually, as Mr. Tower has been rereading Cheever lately and thinking how weird it is that his fiction is so often life affirming while his journals are so inconsolably gloomy. “With the short stories he’s sort of laboring to deliver a generosity of spirit– it seems like he’s really groping for these moments of joy,” Mr. Tower said. “His journals are just a much, much bleaker portrait.”
Flipping through his own journal recently, Mr. Tower said, he found a note he wrote to himself several months ago cautioning against “using real life’s horrors too literally.”
“The ugly things we tend to deal with,” Mr. Tower said, “they’re just too gruesome for fiction.”