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Book review: Reflective ‘Angel of Rome’ offers poignant, witty summer read

June 26, 2022 Updated Thu., July 14, 2022 at 10:48 a.m.

 (Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)
By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

The latest book by Spokane’s Jess Walter is a collection of older works from the past decade that have appeared separately in other places, including the pages of The Spokesman-Review.

Putting them all in one place, however, provides us with a sweet sample of Walter’s wit and writing, a perfect summer reading companion.

“The Angel of Rome: And Other Stories” is, at its heart, a collection of stories about aging, whether it be the challenges of teenagers coming of age or the fears of elders facing their own mortality. Each story provides its own wisdom of how each stage of our lives carries its own burdens, and Walter’s fluid writing brings an understanding to each phase of our existence.

Walter also brings a variety of voices into these pages, whether it be a teenage girl trying to live up to the image of her gorgeous mother, a son caring for a father with dementia or middle-school boys whose lives center around one urban street corner providing a respite from the outside challenges of their lives. Each piece has its own distinctive character.

Of course, the stories ring with Walter’s snazzy writing:

• “The average age at a Wednesday Broadway matinee is dead.”

• “This is the problem with living in fantasies: we so often fail to account for ourselves being in them.”

And my favorite first line of the book:

“My father’s girlfriend came home from the casino a day early and caught him having sex with the woman across the street.”

With all short-story collections, each reader will have their favorites. Mine happened to be the one that provides the title of the book.

“The Angel of Rome” follows a 21-year-old nerd through “the summer of my reinvention, 1993.” After conniving to land a scholarship from the Omaha Chapter of the Knights of Columbus to study Latin in Rome that summer, Jack Rigel imagines this will be the way he will show the more privileged classmates at his private school that the scholarship kids can hold their own.

This fantasy quickly falls apart, but he finds himself entwined in a bigger, more colorful dreamscape that collides with the world of 1980s television. It’s a tender story peppered with hilarious hijinks that showcases everything I like about these stories.

The “Other Stories” are as poignant, funny and reflective.

Take this book, throw it in your backpack or pool tote and enjoy the summer.

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