Any discussion of short stories has to begin with the master, Raymond Carver. But after reading “We Live in Water,” I would argue Jess Walter belongs in that exclusive club of first-rate writers of short fiction.
“We Live in Water” is Walter’s first collection of short stories. It was published in 2013 and just waiting for me to pluck it off the shelf of a used bookstore in Anacortes. Totally appropriate to find it and buy it there, considering Walter is a Northwest native who writes authoritatively about Seattle and Portland, even as he continues to reside in his hometown of Spokane.
I knew of Walter as a former newspaper reporter for The Spokesman-Review. So I was pleased — no, blown away, actually — to come across his sumptuous novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” in the same Anacortes bookstore, and savor it like a fine bottle of wine. Accordingly, I was delighted to find “We Live in Water.”
It is superb. Like Carver, Walter excels at quick sketches that bring to life totally believable characters, most of them down-on-their-luck and just trying to get by. Most are blue-collar or unemployed and many of them are trying to mend broken relationships. And all of them, for better or worse, reveal something about their inner selves that allows us to understand them and their behavior and their life choices.
Combine those authentic characters with great plotting, pitch-perfect dialogue and an unerring sense of place, and you have all the elements of a satisfying read. As a Portlander, it’s a bonus to see specific places like Powell’s Books, Coffee People, the Heathman Hotel — even Beaverton — sprinkled throughout the stories.
The protagonists vary greatly, as do their dilemmas:
— In “Anything Helps,” a homeless man in Spokane relies on cardboard signs to panhandle while trying to save enough money to buy a book for his son.
— In the title story, a San Francisco lawyer returns to a small Idaho town hoping to learn more about his father, who disappeared when he was a young boy.
— In “Helpless Little Things,” a scam artist who sells dope up and down the I-5 corridor befriends two Portland teenagers in a scheme built around soliciting donations to Greenpeace.
— In “The New Frontier,” two high school buddies from Spokane head down to Las Vegas in search one of their sisters, who may have been sucked into prostitution.
There are 13 stories in all, capped by a non-fiction gem, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington,” in which Walter observes: “On any given day in Spokane, Washington, there are more adult men per capita riding children’s BMX bikes than in any other city in the world.”
The New York Times calls Walter “a ridiculously talented writer.” The Los Angeles Review of Books says he is “a prodigiously gifted writer. His sentences nearly sing.”
Both descriptions are apt.
Here are just three excerpts:
From “We Live in Water,” a scene set in 1958:
“Oren glanced at the kid, whose feet dangled over the edge of the bench seat and the scratchy Indian blanket he’d put on there to keep the springs from popping through the torn upholstery. Michael was six, middle of three, only boy, and the only kid Oren got in the divorce. It had been his lawyer’s advice; if he didn’t want to pay so much he needed to take a kid. So he got the boy. “Yeah?”
From “Helpless Little Things,” opening sentence:
“I fucking hate Portland.”
From “The New Frontier,” as Nick and Bobby look for a place to stay on the Vegas strip:
“Today, the New Frontier is a paint-chipped, dirty old shell of a building that takes up an entire block. Its eighty-foot sign advertises BIKINI BULL RIDING, $8.75 STEAK AND SHRIMP, and MUD WRESTLING along with COLD BEER and DIRTY GIRLS. The hotel is scheduled to be demolished in a few months but the guests at the New Frontier don’t look like they’ll make it that long. Everywhere there are canes and walkers, oxygen machines and motorized wheelchairs. Even the healthy people move in clouds of cigarette smoke, women straining polyester, men in raggedy cutoffs slathering mayonnaise on foot-long hot dogs. It’s as if the hotel were hosting a conference on adult onset diabetes.”
Photograph: Reluctant Habits