‘A terrific collection of short stories’ – We Live in Water by Jess Walter

wliwjwThe twelve stories (and one statistical abstract for the author’s hometown of Spokane, Washington) contained within We Live in Water are (as to be expected from a debut short story collection produced half a dozen novels into the author’s career) drawn from a period of about a decade or more. In other words, this isn’t a collection like you’d get from, say, TC Boyle or William Trevor, where you know he has sat down with the intention of writing a new collection. What is interesting, though, particular if you are a fan of Walter, is that the collection feels like that. As with DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda, what We Live in Water demonstrates is that Walter has a strong voice, a clear and coherent set of values, a convincing bag of narrative tricks and sleights of hand; he’s a writer who can be both funny and serious, a writer who can challenge and entertain, a writer prepared to show you ugly and then explain why you’re seeing it wrong.

What we get here, for the most part, are stories set in Walter’s hometown, Spokane, a world in which people struggle, make bad choices, endlessly justify, rationalise, attempt to dig themselves out of mess, fail, make do, dream and sleep. These are worlds in which bad choices often go back decades, souring everything that follows, people disappearing into a vacuum only questions can fill – take the title story as a for instance, which pans between 1958 – when Oren Dessens paid a visit to a guy he’d ripped off in the company of his son – and 1992, when said son returns to find out what happened to his dad.

‘Whole worlds exist beneath the surface. And maybe you can’t see down there, Michael thought, but there’s a part of you that knows.’

Walter is particularly strong on the back and forth between adults and children, but it’s more than just dialogue. A story like ‘Thief’, where a character called Wayne believes one of his children to be stealing from the coin jar they use to save for their annual holidays (a crime that would’ve seen Wayne’s dad open up a whole can of whupass on him) and camps out to catch them, is rich with parental detail. It’s the kind of story you read nodding, awash with a lifetime of sacrifices, death by a thousand paper cuts. These are people caught in a mad moment – ‘Thief”s Wayne and ‘Virgo”s Trent both know they’ve done wrong – but as Trent says,

‘Who isn’t crazy sometimes? Who hasn’t driven around a block hoping a certain person will come out; who hasn’t haunted a certain coffee shop, or stared obsessively at an old picture, who hasn’t tiled over every word in a letter, taken four hours to write a two-sentence email, watched the phone praying that it will ring; who doesn’t lay awake at night sick with the image of her sleeping with someone else?’

(And, if you’re looking carefully, there’s the knife edge Walter is so good at – we’re with him, we’re with him and then, suddenly, we’re not anymore – this guy is a loon, he’s a nutjob, the kind of guy who’d – well, you’ll have to read the story to find out what it is he’ll do but – there we were, sympathising, we were on his side and then – BAM! – what the hell were we doing sympathising with his guy – he’s CRAZY!). This sympathy is important. In a story like ‘Anything Helps’ – which concerns a homeless man and could easily have slipped into mawkishness, a powerful internal monologue keeps the story grounded, rooted in the real, funny even.

‘The kid’s sign reads HOMELESS HUNGRY. Bit yells, Homeless Hungry? Dude, I invented Homeless Hungry. The kid just waves.’

But – in case you were thinking ‘okay, I have Walter pigeonholed as a sort of Springsteen-y writer, attracted to blue collar types, a liberal, attuned to ideas of social justice, using the form to hold up America for both ridicule and assessment’ – there are stories here that show Walter as closer to being a nascent Jonathan Lethem (his zombie story ‘Don’t Eat Cat’ is a riot). Undoubtedly he’s a political writer (the book ends with a numbered overview of Walter’s hometown that works like an explanation for the stories you’ve just read, and the piece is distinguished on the audiobook of We Live in Water by being read by Walter himself) but as his most recent novel, Beautiful Ruins demonstrates, he’s also a writer with a lot of ambition, a writer who has taken years to hone his craft. We’re fans here in Bookmunch Towers and we think you should be too. We Live in Water is just snug enough to fit in your pocket and packs enough punches to be the perfect introduction. What are you waiting for?

Any Cop?: Fans of Walter won’t need much in the way of recommendation to hunt this one down; everyone else, just know that this is a terrific collection of short stories.


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