March 2013

Noah Charney


We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Short story collections are best when there is a cohesion to them. This may be as basic as a stretched array of ligaments and cartilage that lashes together their diaphanous parts; they need not all occupy the same envelope of skin, working as one being. They are least effective when they feel like buckshot fired from one author's rifle, with no evident themes to string the stories together. To make a parallel analogy, a crafted album is more satisfying than one single following the other, with no more connection than the name of the artist, on a greatest hits compilation.

Jess Walter's latest book, We Live in Water, is a slender, clean, and beautiful collection of stories linked by just enough tissue and membrane to make the book a satisfying whole -- more than the sum of its parts. The through-line is the city of Spokane, Washington. Walter grew up there, always wanted to leave, and yet has remained. The city is his muse, he its bard. It is hardly the sort of city to inspire lyric and song. About 200,000 in population, it is the inexpensive, crime-ridden, down-and-out neighbor to wealthy Seattle. As Walter notes, "It is too poor, too white, and too uneducated. There is not enough ethnic food. It has a boring downtown and no art-house theater and it is too conservative." While Spokane has improved in some respects (Walter notes that there are now twenty Thai and Vietnamese restaurants listed in town, so someone was listening to his prior complaints), it still retains its down-and-out feel. One has a sense that Walter has assigned himself a voluntary imprisonment there. From this book alone, Spokane has a bleak darkness about it that does not explain Walter's desire to remain. But his stories enliven, though they do not brighten, the place.

The thirteen stories in We Live in Water were published in a variety of high-profile magazines (from Harper's to Playboy to McSweeney's), a reminder that short fiction does have some venues remaining, although it has fallen from the stratosphere of a few decades ago, when the short story was a hugely marketable art form, one that launched and sustained careers. I recently began a project in which I read a short story every night for a month, each by a different author, and write a response essay to each the next morning. The idea was both to expose myself to a wide variety of authors in a short period of time, and to investigate what happened to the short story. In this age of $1 e-book singles, technology might just bring the short story back to power, the way 99-cent MP3s on iTunes helped sell music to folks who did not want to drop $15 on an album.

Walter's writing style is minimalist. Not in the Hemingway sense of few words used, but in the almost complete absence of adjectives and adverbs, descriptions that attempt artfulness (the metaphors, similes, and other authorial fireworks are few and far between). Walter allows his characters, particularly in the way they speak (and the street dialect they employ), to show us, rather than tell us, about them. Most of his characters are coming from trouble, headed for more trouble. In the title story, a man searches for his father, who disappeared when he was six. The story alternates between the day his father "left," and the man's conversation with the last man to have seen him. The tale is wonderfully dark, with an ideal use of split-time narrative, the trick of bouncing between past and present that is often abused, or ineffective. But neither father nor son is a protagonist you can root for. The story haunted me for several days after reading it, as great stories do. Walter is not concerned with textual fireworks, just smooth stories about rough men in hard times, doing the best they can, which is usually not very good.

Walter's stories are best when there is a rich vein of evil just below the surface. "We Live in Water" is such a story, about sinners doing bad things to other sinners. "Virgo" is perhaps the most ingenious, a subtly-drawn tale of a stalker, told from his own point of view that is charming and confused, but lets just enough of the sociopathic shine through to let us feel that creeping dread that is a hallmark of good stories. "Don't Eat Cat" is the most hit-or-miss in the collection. It's ostensibly about zombies, but seems to be an overt allegory of immigrant workers, darkly funny, slightly awkwardly written (I believe intentionally), and awkward to read (likewise an intentional effect, it seems, but a style that is likely to either turn on or turn off). There are some caper stories, like "Helpless Little Things," in which a scam of fake Greenpeace donations turns on the scammer, and "Thief," a morality tale in which a father lays a trap to catch whichever family member is swiping coins from the family's vacation fund. The best characters are those we root for, but recognize are likely beyond helping themselves; they ride a liminal rail between people you want to root for, and people you can root for. Beyond these more overt themes of tough-to-like characters whom we can't help liking, some riffs appear throughout, furthering strengthening the collection. Several characters have diabetes. Several characters are named Marci (though they do not seem to be the same person). And everyone is from, or passes through, Spokane.

Perhaps the strongest chapter is not a short story at all, but a series of bullet points in a mini-memoir about Spokane, with which Walter ends his collection. Bouncing between facts and personal anecdotes, it is an excavation of the city he has forced himself to still call home. It also throws in some gentle moments of frightening heroism, protecting women headed to, or camped out in, a shelter near his home. Walter's neighborhood in Spokane sounds like a sort of urban wild west, in which junkies appear at his doorstep without warning, and roam the streets in under-sized BMX bikes like a sort of zombie apocalypse.

It makes for good reading, though I'm not sure I'd want to raise a family there.

We Live in Water by Jess Walter
Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0061926624
192 pages

Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author.