We all know Jess Walter as a novelist. The award-winning “The Zero” and “Citizen Vince.” The lauded “The Financial Lives of the Poets.” And last year’s amazing “Beautiful Ruins.”
With his newest book, “We Live in Water,” Walter has collected 13 works of short fiction in a paperback volume. All but one of the stories has been previously published, and most are set in the Northwest. Many of them are sad – sad tales about sad people living sad lives. But they are also funny, and sarcastic and a bit cynical. Still, and Walter himself will tell you this, they are imbued with a ray of hope.
Over the course of 177 pages, we read about homeless men and meth addicts, zombies and stalkers, broken dreams and broken marriages, a son looking for the truth and a single dad trying to do his best. And while they’re all the products of Walter’s rich imagination, some of the stories – “Thief,” for instance, and “A Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington” – have roots in Walter’s personal history.
The collection’s first story, “Anything Helps,” centers on Bit, a recovering addict who lost his wife to drugs and his son to the state. He’s been kicked out of the shelter where he’s been staying, trying to get his act together – something he and his wife were always going to do, get their act together. Out of desperation, he hits the streets of Spokane, a handmade “Anything Helps” sign at the ready, to raise some cash from passing motorists. Not for a drink – not really, anyway – but to do something for his kid’s birthday.
Like many of the characters in “We Live in Water,” Bit falls prey to his own terrible choices, but holds out hope that he can get his act together. The title story, “We Live in Water,” is less hopeful, although the characters refuse to give up hope. It’s the story of a father who disappears and the son who, 34 years later, tries to find him. The son, dealing with a broken marriage, has learned the accepted family story of his dad’s disappearance is not the truth. And even as the dad, a Navy veteran named Oren, is enduring the retribution bestowed upon him by a wronged husband, he turns his mind elsewhere.
“He came back to that morning on the carrier, the blue sky and the ocean, and where they met, that endless line. Everything that isn’t sky and water live for a moment in that little gray band. Above and below it, the blue stretches forever.”
The only previously unpublished story in this collection, “The Brakes,” is the final part – and longest – in a trio of stories, along with “Can a Corn” and “Please.” Through three brief stories – they range from two to five pages – we have a portrait of Tommy, the kind of guy who checks his stepdad out of Pine Lodge to take him to dialysis, and who instead indulges an old man’s desire to go fishing, as in “Can a Corn.” He lost custody of his son to an ex who is cooking meth with her new boyfriend (“Please”), then does the right thing at work as an example to the child (“The Brakes”). Walter does a lot with few words in these connected tales, showering the reader with all the rich details we need to derive fully formed characters. I would love to read more about Tommy some day.
The most atypical story here is “Don’t Eat Cat,” which was published last year by Byliner as a digital single. In 2040, corporations rule, the ozone is toast, and a club drug turns people into zombies. OK, they’re not the undead. They’re afflicted by hypo-endocrinal-thyro- encephalitis, which leaves them pasty-faced and glassy eyed, with rotten teeth and an inability to speak in complete sentences or handle stressful situations. Oh, and they’ve been known to eat house pets. It’s a morbidly funny tale with little riffs on corporate greed, environmental devastation and a self-inflicted epidemic.
My two favorites are the two closest to autobiography: “Thief” and “A Statistical Abstract.”
“Thief,” about a father out to determine which of his three kids is stealing coins from the family vacation fund, has a lovely little shift of perspective at the end that really stays with you.
“Abstract,” which made the rounds on Facebook last year, is appropriately the book’s final story. It’s a list, really, of 50 facts and anecdotes about Spokane and Walter’s life here. Some common threads emerge: The propensity of Spokane’s young men to ride kids’ BMX bikes, heartbreaking tales of battered women and their children walking past Walter’s house on their way to the nearby shelter, Spokane vs. Seattle, poverty. The final anecdote centers on Walter’s witnessing of a domestic violence situation right in front of his house, and his and a neighbor’s efforts to help a woman and her son.
It is here, in Walter’s last paragraph, when his theme of hope comes shining through:
“At the shelter, I gave her back the crutches. The woman knocked on the door. It opened. Mike and I stayed on the street, because that’s as close as we’re supposed to get. Maybe as close as we want to get. A gentle hand took the woman’s arm and she and her boy were led carefully inside.”
It’s a powerful ending to a collection that is everything you’d want it to be: funny, insightful and thought-provoking.