Writing Craft: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I found myself reading a kindred spirit in the writing style of Wells Tower. Tower takes a comprehensive approach to character development and story complexity, with the attitude of a fellow Gen Xer. Well-written subject matter carried a dark subtext, but not usually of some harrowing violence or a macabre scene – though the unusual title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” certainly filled that role, following a violent story of Viking invaders with hints of fantasy and speaking in current day vulgarity. These were stories about every day real people living real lives in the face of adversity and challenging interpersonal relationships.

The stories all fit the slice of life style I studied in college twenty-plus years ago, though much more developed and filled out. The darkest element was what was not written; the ambiguity. The stories ended with little-to-no closure after setting up tense scenes, elaborate intertwining storylines, and characters the reader can easily become vested in. For example, in the story “On the Show” we are left wondering if the perpetrator of an awful child-molestation act at a carnival is caught during the on-going police investigation. While the story follows the momentary lives of several characters at the carnival, his identity is casually revealed near the end as he thinks about his wife and daughter following a cattle competition he had just hosted:

But he doesn’t care for the pointless velocity of the carnival amusements. Looking out at the whirling skyline of the fair, he can’t help thinking about all the earth you could move, all the beef you could haul with so much fuel and good steal. He thinks, too, of last night, of the boy in the Honeypot, and feels a pleasant ache, like being rasped on the back of the sternum with a jeweler’s file. There’s a want in him to take a stroll around, but he pushes it down. (Nook Ed., p. 148)

With exception to the title story, I found myself struggling to accept the stories’ endings; I wasn’t ready to finish when they did. The lush prose and witty language made for compelling page turning, but the endings left too much unresolved.

I did something I don’t normally do when I write a book response or review: I read some online reviews by other readers to see how they responded as I work my way through my own takeaways. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was loved by many readers though a handful disliked the lack of closure displaying the same feelings I had when I finally put the book down. Going back to my original point, it’s what wasn’t written that caught my attention. It was intentional to create discomfort, depicting the uncertainty of the real world. Not everything has a clean ending, or an ending at all, as we move through time and space interacting with each other.

As far as writing craft goes, it’s difficult for me to find specific focus on what I may have gained from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as I did from other recent books this year. His writing style shares many craft elements to my own. I will say this, though, it gave me a new respect for taking chances, particularly leaving stories intentionally open-ended. And it has spurred a new thought-process worth considering in forcing the reader to make connections and draw conclusions. I’m sure a few readers were put off for this reason, but I embraced it the trust and confidence Tower put on me.


Writing Craft: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Whimsical, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences portraying the inner workings of defective people facing situations outside of their comfort zones. Darkly humorous and grimly serious, George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia was unusual to read and hard to put down. Saunders nails the flawed protagonist’s portrayal in every story: egocentrics searching for self-esteem, self-deprecating narcissists looking for love, the last minutes of a troubled boy’s life, and a theme park living-history performer trying to get through serious life circumstances in the most mundane manner possible in a mockery of corporate America.

Saunders writes a seamless blend of inner thoughts and actions of the outside world. By varying run-ons with short abrupt sentences, he creates an organic portrayal of harsh reality in his characters’ observation of their worlds. Consider the following monologue from a motivational speaker helping an audience rid themselves of problem people from their lives in the story “Winky.”

“A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping in my oatmeal, and simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this sound maybe paradoxical? Wasn’t he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he’s going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?” (45)

The setup of the speaker’s story is drawn out, like he is stumbling through his thoughts, though it’s all intentional from a motivational perspective. As the scope narrows to the point, “how was that my fault?” sentences constrict themselves driving the point’s emphasis home.

A similar structure appears in the following passage from the title story “Pastoralia,” in which the corporate leadership sends out one of many memos to the living history performers in a theme park. It starts out short, becomes quite long, then reigns itself in. It is a bit long, but well-worth reading.

Regarding the rumors you may have lately been hearing, it says. Please be advised that they are false. They are so false that we consider not even bothering to deny them. Because denying them would imply that we actually heard them. Which we haven’t. We don’t waste time on such nonsense. And yet we know that if we don’t deny the rumors we haven’t heard, you will assume they are true. And they are so false! So let us just categorically state that all the rumors you’ve been hearing are false. Not only the rumors you’ve heard, but also those you haven’t heard, and even those that haven’t yet been spread, are false. However, there is one exception to this, and that is if the rumor is good. That is, if the rumor presents us, us up here, in a positive light, and our mission, and our accomplishments, in that case, and in that case only, we will have to admit that the rumor you’ve been hearing is right on target, and congratulate you on your fantastic powers of snooping, to have found out that secret super thing! In summary, we simply ask you ask yourself, upon hearing a rumor: Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, that rumor is false, please disregard. If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your lips to the tracks. Tell your friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock. Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks. (41)

Even though this is satire, I feel like I have come across similar self-aggrandizing corporate communications in the past, talking in circles, using many words to say so little. In this passage, the shorter, more specific sentences seem to be where the truth actually lies – the negative rumors. Whereas the positive rumors the author refers to are stumbling streams of thought aiming for justification by quantity of words.

Returning to the story “Winky,” this style of writing is used to depict the protagonist’s state of mind after finishing his session with the motivational speaker. His limited perception of wealth and his lack of worldliness are revealed through the process. Both humorous and sympathetic.

Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him. (53)

The tragic story “The End of Firpo in the World” brilliantly captures the racing imagination of a mischievous, troubled boy, Cody, as he plans a prank on his neighbors while quickly riding his bicycle around the block to assess the situation. Again, it’s long, but showing an abridged form would not do it justice.

Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they would conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special. (79)

So, what did I take away from the book that I can carry into my own writing? Like I concluded after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, breaking the conventions of proper sentence structure and grammar, the writing craft alone creates the mood and environment in which the story exists. The run-on sentences contrasted with the short abrupt statements, in this case, create a natural duality reflective of how people think and perceive the world. One idea begets the next idea, which opens a tangential thought and so on. The pathetic and tragic characters of Saunders’s stories, as whimsical as they appear, are real enough that I don’t question their identities and authenticity. My take-away is simple: creatively (i.e. break the rules) use the craft as appropriate for the story to give it credence; don’t hold back.

Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

Dark subjects driven by the dark psychology of the characters rooted in a common thread of loneliness. The short stories of The Delicate Prey are best described as “messed up” as someone noted in a short review I spotted on Good Reads. Artfully written bringing early twentieth century Latin America to life, contrasting the natural beauty of the land with the less-than-desirable living conditions of the locals.

An element of racism exists among those of Spanish descent toward the native people – known simply as Indians – adding to the tensions and demeanor of the characters, providing a sense of entitlement for some to act upon their ill intentions. In the first story, “At Paso Rojo,” an upper-class woman, Chalía, and her sister, visit their brother’s ranch after their mother has died. Chalía makes a game of emotionally manipulating and injuring a young Indian man who works for her brother. The specific root of behavior is not apparent beyond her open discrimination toward the Indians, though we learn of lying and deceptive behaviors through the story, and her desire to control others. The following passage paints a vivid portrait of Chalía’s diabolical nature.

Something dark lying in the road ahead of her made her stop walking. It did not move….as she drew near, she knew it was Roberto. She touched his arm with her foot. He did not respond. She leaned over and put her hand on his chest. He was breathing deeply, and the smell of liquor was almost overpowering. She straightened and kicked him lightly in the head. There was a tiny groan from far within. This also, she said to herself, would have to be done quickly. She felt wonderfully light and powerful as she slowly maneuvered his body with her feet to the right-hand side of the road. There was a small cliff there, about twenty feet high. When she got him to the edge, she waited a while, looking at his features in the moonlight. His mouth was open a little, and the white teeth peeked out from behind the lips. She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit. (P. 18)

 “The Scorpion” was probably one of the strangest stories I read, and the most thought provoking. Two sons had left their elderly mother to live in a cave they dug out of clay for an undetermined length of time. She was left to survive with a bare minimum of supplies, her dreams, and her memories. Surrounded by scorpions in the walls and constant dripping water, she adapts to her solitude.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. (P. 103)

Finally, one of her sons arrives to retrieve her, he seems surprised that either she is still there or alive; she refuses to leave at first. We don’t know why he is there for her, but it is clear their relationship is not good as she is not even sure of his identity.

One dark day he looked up to see one of her sons standing in the doorway. She could not remember which one it was, but she thought it was the one who had ridden the horse down the dry river bed and nearly been killed. She looked at his hand to see if it was out of shape. It was not that son. (P. 103)

We never learn the names of the old woman nor her son, not even the anonymous old man who sits outside the cave occasionally without any interaction. Her closest interaction with another person is built on isolation:

One old man used to come from the village on his way down to the valley, and sit on a rock just distant enough from the cave for her to recognize him. She knew he was aware of her presence in the cave there, and although she probably did not know this, she disliked him for not giving some sign that he knew she was there. (P. 103)

We can only surmise the reason the old woman was sent to live in a cave by her two resentful sons far outside of town was that it was intended to be her tomb. What we do learn is implied through actions and the bitter dialogue; the specifics about their estrangement are clear. It’s best summed up in this exchange at the close of the story as the son leads his mother out of the cave and the surprised old man sitting nearby says “good-bye”:

“Who is that?” said her son.
“I don’t know.”
Her son looked back at her darkly.
“You’re lying,” he said. (P. 106)

Interestingly, the story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz” paints a dark portrait of loneliness and despondency not unlike the other stories, but with a happy ending, as happy as one could expect in the circumstances. A young man named Ramón signed on to the crew of a ship, working in the scullery.

Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. (P. 106-107)

During a stopover in a port town, Ramón searches for the crew after he has finished cleaning the kitchen, hours after the crew had left the ship. He finds a group of them in a café. The following scene captures the anguish and anger Ramón confronts as it continues to build to a climax:

Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came an served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. (P. 108)

As Ramón continues to find ways draw the sailors’ attention to no avail, he sees an opportunity during their fourth day out at sea. A tired bird far from land is desperate to land on the ship’s deck, but the gawking crew scares it from doing so. As they place bets on the bird’s fate, Ramón brings out the ship’s mascot, a large cat, and trains the cat’s focus on the bird to attempt to catch it. The sailors are impressed.

In a situation that appeared to be leading to some type of violent act of Ramón’s doing was cleverly displayed by the cat attempting to catch the bird without success. Yet, Ramón is awarded with the acceptance from his crewmates he craved.

At noonday meal they talked about it. After some argument the bets were paid. One of the oilers went to his cabin and brought out a bottle of cognac and a set of little glasses which he put in front of him and filled, one after the other.
“Have some?” he said to Ramón.

Writing Craft: Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard’s collection of stories is a unique mix of heavily flawed characters, dysfunctional families, early twentieth century military and engineering feats, classic horror movies, and dark humor. His stories take unconventional approaches to a variety of taboo and uncomfortable subjects, of which I am focusing on the stories portraying the protagonists or cast of characters near death.

A self-deprecating husband tells the first story in the collection, “The Gun Lobby,” in the present tense as his gun-crazy wife holds him hostage during a standoff with law enforcement. The scene is a catalyst for the protagonist to reflect on his marriage and his personal failures with a strange sense of calm and humor, in which they can watch themselves on the local news shortly before meeting their probable demise:

“Here” is Waterbury, Connecticut, which is right now the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the Hostage, at the windows every so often on TV. We watch ourselves. (Kindle Loc. 89-91)

I’ve been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a piss-poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I’d have to list darts, reclosing Stay-Fresh boxes, and staying out of the way.   (Kindle Loc. 147-150)

As the story reaches its climax, the seriousness of the situation is down played with lighthearted metaphors and observational wisdom:

I have a hold of Stephanie’s ankle. For the longest time I’m not hurt. Her rate of fire is spectacular. The ordnance coming back at us sets everything in the kitchen into electric life. Our overhead fixture’s doing a tarantella. (Kindle Loc. 228-229)

There are events in which every second can be taken out of line, examined this way and that, and then allowed to move along. This is one of them. (Kindle Loc. 230-231)

The title story “Love and Hydrogen,” set in the Hindenburg over the last few days of its final voyage told in the present tense, follows the homosexual relationship between two crew members: Meinert, a German war vet who took pride in his bombing raids on England and France, a Gnüss, who is much younger, jealous, and infatuated with Meinert. The tension displayed from Gnüss’s perspective of their relationship is filled with fond memories of their love and Meinert’s war stories. As the drama plays out the dark humor creeps in at unexpected moments juxtaposed against the reader’s relentless knowledge that the Hindenburg would soon meet its fate:

Egk is a fat little man with boils. Meinert considers him to have been well named. (Kindle Loc. 277-278)

[Gnüss] goes below and stops by the crew’s quarters. No luck. He listens in on a discussion of suitable first names for children conceived aloft in a zeppelin. The consensus favors Shelium, if a girl. (Kindle Loc. 411-413)

Ultimately, Gnüss’s despondency and jealousy brings down the zeppelin and everyone aboard:

Inside the hangarlike hull, they can feel the gravitational forces as Captain Pruss brings the ship up to the docking mast in a tight turn. The sharpness of the turn overstresses the after-hull structure, and the bracing wire bolt that Gnüss overtightened snaps like a rifle shot. The recoiling wire slashes open the gas cell opposite. Seven or eight feet above Gnüss’s alarmed head, the escaping hydrogen encounters the prevailing St. Elmo’s fire playing atop the ship. (Kindle Loc. 475-478)

The fireball explodes outward and upward, annihilating Gnüss at its center. More than 100 feet below on the axial catwalk, as the blinding light envelops everything below it, Meinert knows that whatever time has come is theirs, and won’t be like anything else. (Kindle Loc. 479-481)

The final story of the collection, “Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea,” follows a small squadron of German soldiers during World War II who stopped caring about the war. Their job was to fly the “Messerschmitt 163 [the Komet], the first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series.” (Kindle Loc. 4593-4595) They were intended as a line of defense to take down Allied bombers over Germany, albeit with poor effectiveness. Their lives were built around the high risks in piloting these rockets during testing and training exercises:

So? we said to ourselves. Everyone knew that learning to fly meant little more than learning to land.

But pilots are taught to land by flying alongside instructors. There was no room for two in these things. So we’d have to be told, rather than shown.

“Does the landing,” Ziegler asked in a classroom session, “have to be perfect?”

“No,” Wörndl shrugged. “You could die, instead.” (Kindle Loc. 4663-4667)

 As the story goes, a number of pilots die horrible deaths or experience grave injuries. Yet, it carries on in Shepard’s light-hearted and sometimes grotesque manner:

The cockpit was filled with a black-and-red-and-yellow soup. The yellow looked like chicken fat. The fuel cells had shattered and the fuel had poured into the cockpit. Those who understood explained it to those who still didn’t: Glogner had been dissolved alive. (Kindle Loc. 4724-4726)

The next Komet exploded on the flight line. When we reached the spot, there was only a blackened and steaming stain. Medical personnel found a bone fragment, and brought it in on a stretcher. (Kindle Loc. 4733-4734)

Rösle’s Komet flipped on landing just before the perimeter. It didn’t explode and he was pulled from it just conscious, but pints of the fuel had run over his back while he hung there, and when they tore off the flight suit, the skin underneath was a jelly. He was on enough painkillers to last until April. (Kindle Loc. 4827-4829)

The collective psychology of the squadron enters a mix of depression and isolation. They adopt a gallows humor to cope with the near-death risks of their job while celebrating their love for the Komets:

My turn came next. “Come come come, Baby Bird,” Uhlhorn said as I held up my straw. “Your one-six-three-B is steaming and ready to blow. We need to put you in it or it will blow up for no reason.” (Kindle Loc. 4735-4736)

We are all insomniacs. We are, as a group, a picturesque compendium of physical tics. (Kindle Loc. 4779)

WHEN I WAKE there’s an impromptu celebration and meeting around my bunk. It transpires that Wörndl’s Komet caught fire right above the field. He had to bail out forty meters from the treetops and his parachute caught the upper branches of a big pine, insuring he only cracked his ankle. He tells everyone that it was like jumping off a church steeple with an umbrella. (Kindle Loc. 4823-4826)

In conclusion, I could discuss this collection for endless hours, as the stories are rich in vivid content and unusual circumstances. I highly recommend Love and Hydrogen to anyone who enjoys the art of short fiction.

Writing Craft: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

The collection of short stories of Jesus’ Son is something of a paradox. The graceful and poetic language portrays dark and depressing situations occupied by people at their lowest points performing despicable acts. Fluid and sensuous prose carry the narrative forward effortlessly; the time it takes to read the book becomes irrelevant. This was my first time reading Denis Johnson’s work, and not knowing anything about him, I wondered if these vivid stories were pulled from real-life experiences. Either way, I was captivated.

Johnson makes a hospital orderly moving through his day in the story “Emergency” on a drug high sound warm and simple. He seemed to have reached a heightened state of bliss among a bleak and stressful world, while the dire risks of his actions were always prevalent.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. (Loc. 694-696)

Duality is consistently portrayed in an illustrative storytelling motif throughout the stories through an inebriated perception of people and self, and their relationships to the environment. This is a polar extreme to the clichéd my head felt like a balloon and floated from my body and over the green pastures type of hack:

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. (Loc. 39-40)

It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (Loc. 451-453)

All senses are engaged. Johnson places the reader in the environment through deliberate figurative prose. Landscape description appear frequently, along with the integration of nature, setting the tone of the immediate physical world and then on a higher existential level consistent with the protagonist’s thought process. Consider these examples:

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue. (Loc. 753-754) 

What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note. (Loc. 567-568)

Descriptions of settings often take on a stream of consciousness quality through the protagonist’s altered perceptions while incorporating actions and people as part of the holistic environment. In this way, Johnson effectively animates common activities like riding on a ferryboat or a subway train:

The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorus—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams. (Loc. 1000-1003)

I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materializing and dematerializing in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.(Loc. 948-951)

People are treated in a similar descriptive manner giving them identifiable realistic traits leaving no room to question their authenticity:

He stood hugging himself and talking down at the earth. The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here. (Loc. 560-561) 

He walked with a bounce, his shoulders looped and his chin scooping forward rhythmically. He didn’t look right or left. I supposed he’d walked this route twelve thousand times. He didn’t sense or feel me following half a block behind him. (Loc. 920-921)

I found the following quote in “Happy Hour” fitting to wrap up my take on Jesus’ Son. By intention or not it seems Johnson was poking fun at the style of his writing and its juxtaposition to the subject matter:

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left. (Loc. 1147-1148)