By Wells Tower
256 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Wells Tower's stories have been appearing over the past few years in the nation's best literary journals—Harper's, The Paris Review, McSweeney's—and now have been pulled together to form one of the best debut collections in recent memory, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The title story is a witty narrative of Viking rampages, brought to a powerfully loving conclusion; most of the other stories are contemporary and more or less realistic, but with that edge of absurdity and surrealism ever more present in American fiction. Tower's stories feature people pushed to the edge of the reasonable, people left to their own minimal devices to protect their fragile identities: a boy running off to the carnival, a girl getting into sexual trouble in the woods, an old man meeting the drug dealer across the street, or a young one wandering the city with a senile father after their dinner with a homeless chess hustler and a crazy stepmother. It is that fragility—of young lives, older lives, lives spent on the emotional or social margins—that fascinates Tower. He has a superb ear, a taut, athletic prose, and the kind of gifted sensibility that allows him to take a moment of fear, humiliation, or conquest and reveal its unique inner light.