The Call of the Wild
Wells Tower's debut collection is strong stuff.
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.
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.