The Short Version: This debut collection of stories features tales of men, boys, and the ones stuck in between the two – all of them American, to the core (even in the title story, which is about Vikings but feels writ in an American vernacular). There are Vikings, carnies, and plenty of women – but make no mistake: this is a late-summer collection of stories about the kind of guys they don’t really make anymore.
The Review: Something has always stuck out at me about this book – the burst of color that is the cover, the title, the promise of Vikings – but it was another one of those oft-perused, never-purchased collections of words until a chance pop through the Strand revealed a pristine copy for an unbeatable price. It originally struck me as the sort of book I wanted to read over the July 4th holiday and while I missed that for reasons of stupidity all my own, I was rewarded to see that it is in fact a deep summer sort of book. These stories practically radiate the sort of bright sunshine that draws through impossible afternoons – you can feel the stillness, the tension, the way that desires (all of them, from physical to mental to sexual) can almost be tasted on those days.
All of this is to say that Tower is one hell of an evocative writer. He’s got a bit of the Bradburyian touch, especially when he writes stories of young men trying to figure out their world. Oh, he’s not as gentle as Bradbury could be – but that sense of summer here is similar to Bradbury’s sense of autumn. There are sentences that wrap you up in their imagery – and sentences that beat you senseless across the pate, too. When I said, in the summary, that the stories all felt American… that’s what these stories evoke. They evoke American summers. In fact, not only that, but they evoke the sort of summer that I myself remember. It’s not a secret that summers have changed even in the last ten, fifteen years – they’re getting hotter, we’re getting more connected to our devices, the world is going to hell in a blazingly hot handbasket – but this is the first time I think I’ve read stories that honestly brought back the feeling of being maybe ten or twelve and running around outside while the night crept in, parents and parents’ friends up on the porch with drinks or out back with the grill… that sense of magic and wonder and of the mysterious distances between what we knew and what we knew we were going to know. I’m talking girls, cars, jobs, money, life, death – all of that stuff that seemed just around the bend but also safely out of reach.
The collection starts off with a bang: the first four stories are taught and potent. You realize exactly what you’re in for by the time the first one is done. These are middle-of-the-road men in life and their lives are perhaps not ideal but also perhaps not too terrible. There are philandering wives, seductive other women – but these stories are about these men. We have cabins in the woods (in “Retreat”), beach houses (in “The Brown Coast”), car trips (“Down Through the Valley”) – these are stories that feel, inherently, masculine. Even in “Wild America”, when our main character is a girl, there’s a masculine presence about the page. I don’t mean this to imply that Mr. Tower can’t write about a girl – he does, and well – but rather the male figures in even that story seem to dominate the page. Jacey is struggling to be as poised as her sexpot cousin and her interactions with various men show exactly that.
The collection dips a bit in the strangely-disjoint “On the Show” story – a tale of carnival men and the oddities of that life, a story that evokes the feel of the fair but never really lands in any way, just slices right through you. It ends with the title story, the one that features the Vikings. There’s talk of dragons and plagues – but for the most part, the characters all basically sound exactly like modern men. And that, of course, is the point: there is nothing new under the sun. These urges – to explore, to pillage, to just get out – are ones we (humanity) has had since, well, we can remember.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The Viking story felt a little gimmicky at times and the carnival story had already worn me out a bit – but the first four stories are an unstoppable play that will win over just about any reader. Tower has a way with words, describing things uniquely without overdoing it, and he captures that late-90s feel of summer perfectly: a simpler time that was still terribly complex all the same. It’s the right kind of collection to read on a hot-but-not-hot day, the sort of day that seems to’ve been washed away in the recent heatwaves of these unbearable summers. Things weren’t necessarily better in these stories – but the memory makes them feel that way.