Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned & Asparagus Cheese Orzo
It should come as no surprise that Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not a happy book. It is, however, delicate, witty, tragic, and paints a truer and more complex picture of the modern human condition than I have read for a very long time. Like a Quentin Tarantino film or a Manny Pacquiao fight, there’s an art to Tower’s stories that makes them beautiful in their violence.
The book is a collection of short stories, which subjects the reader to an incredibly diverse portrait of human melancholy, failure, and hubris. Tower leans on little plot exposition to get right into the characters’ psyche — much of the most compelling action is around a table, in a car, in a bar. Yet the work is transfixing.
Tower’s greatest strength, aside from his gorgeous syntax, is that he truly understands people. Does that seem like a lame compliment? Because I mean he really understands people, understands that it’s not the numb insults from an ex-wife that wreck you, it’s the poisoning of your makeshift fish-family. He understands that even in the middle of a family crisis, a woman’s lover and a woman’s husband will still be sizing up each other’s hairlines. It may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the camel still has to stand back up again and trudge on with life.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not the place to find your new favorite hero or most hated villain. Even pedophiles and bellicose Vikings are characters you’ll empathize with, if not root for. Our “heroes” are beaten down by their past and their surroundings, are unclear of their purposes in life, and lack the simple motivations of traditional archetypes.
In “Retreat,” real estate playboy Matthew mourns his lost riches, his love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with his brother, Steven, and tries to drown himself in the comfort of his only friend, George. When Steven — a righteous but spiteful music therapist — comes to visit Matthew’s new cabin, a good hunting trip and a bad meal illustrate the resentment, unfounded jealousy, and doomed, passionate affection that can exist between brothers. As Tower writes it: “Ours isn’t the kind of brotherhood I would wish on other men, but we are blessed with a single, simple gift: in these rare moments of happiness, we can share joy as passionately and single-mindedly as we do hatred.”
Read this book. It will remind you of the nuanced baggage each one of us carries, will make you laugh at idiosyncrasies, and will envelop you in masterful, beautiful words.
Because none of these fraught stories are simple enough to have happy endings, you’ll certainly need to comfort yourself with a delicious meal. I set out to make something as rich as Tower’s language but with a touch of bitterness like his characters. Dive into this warm and complex orzo dish—the asparagus and lemon add an interesting twist.
ASPARAGUS CHEESE ORZO
- 3 1/2 cups unsalted chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 1/4 cups chopped green onions
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked orzo pasta
- 1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon rind
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 3/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 pound green asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 3 ounces parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon parsley
Bring stock to a simmer in a saucepan (do not boil). Keep warm.
Heat a second saucepan over medium-low heat. Add butter and oil.
Throw in your scallions, and cook for about 8 minutes or until slightly soft. Add the orzo and cook for 2 minutes while stirring constantly. Add the rind, juice, salt, and pepper.
Add 1/2 cup of your stock from the first saucepan to your pasta mixture. Cook for 3 minutes or until liquid is nearly absorbed, stirring frequently.
Add remaining stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently until each portion of stock is absorbed before adding the next. When you add your last ½ cup, add the asparagus and cook for 8 minutes or until the asparagus is tender.
Remove from heat and stir in half of your cheese.
Top the entire dish with the remaining cheese and parsley. Serve and savor!