In the title story of Wells Tower's fantastic new collection of short stories, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," a bunch of Vikings sail off to investigate who's sent a couple of plagues their way, and to rectify the situation with a little old-fashioned pillaging. "Most of the others on board were young men," says Harald, the narrator, "brash and violent children, so innocent about the world, they would just as soon stick a knife in you as shake your hand."
Harald doesn't particularly want to go on another sacking party. But he and a couple other reluctant friends give in and go along anyway, even though they're getting old and tired, and sacking is a lot of work. So they give it a half-hearted effort, and one of them even finds a one-armed wife (see: previous raid) before they head back home to finally settle down.
If the story sounds dark, it's actually much funnier than it should be, as are all the stories in "Everything Ravaged." The others, however, are about Americans rather than Vikings, yet they are of an odd piece: Each one mixes humor and violence and pathos in a way that makes Tower's collection a strangely affecting menagerie of busted-up lives people are trying to put together. But whether they're about Vikings or Realtors or inventors, each story crackles with tension.
In one, a man gives a long ride to his ex-wife's new husband. In another, an old cripple befriends (and propositions) a woman he thinks is a prostitute. In another, a girl is nearly kidnapped by a vagrant she kisses. In another, a man invites his estranged brother to the house he's building on a mountainside. These are stories with black eyes and broken noses and bruised hearts.
Why they don't feel bleaker is hard to say. Maybe it's because of what's at their core, a kind of love for people doing their best to make sense of senseless lives, to mend bonds they don't know how they broke and to make their way though life without inflicting too much damage on those close to them. Which, as Harald realizes, may be the hardest task of all, given "how terrible love can be."
"You wish you hated those people," he says after finally starting his own family, "your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself."
Frank Bures is a Minneapolis-based writer and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers magazine.