Saturday, 10 May 2014

We Live In Water by Jess Walter Review

Jess Walter’s first short story collection is a fascinating look at contemporary American society, with a focus on the Pacific North-West region, in the wake of the stock market crash of 2008 and how people, who were already struggling before the economic downturn, are faring now. It’s by turns gritty and tragic as well as clever, compelling and unexpectedly humorous.

Walter is a native of Spokane, Washington, a small town that’s never been particularly prosperous - how do I know this? The final story of the collection (or is it the only nonfiction piece?), Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington, is the best contribution of the book. Experimenting with a factual layout, Walter puts across various stats that make up a rugged view of his home while also including stories that provide a snapshot of what living there is like. 

Suffice it to say, it’s an unflattering portrait, with beaten women dragging bawling children to shelters from abusive boyfriends or husbands, addicts making deals in public places in daylight hours, rampant unemployment, and house prices at a much lower rate than elsewhere in the country. And yet a sense of fondness for the place comes across as well - that there’s a reason why Walter’s stayed there his whole life, chosen to raise his own family there and that there’s good mixed in amongst the misery too. 

It’s this tone that pervades the collection. Stories like Anything Helps where a homeless, alcoholic father begs and saves up enough cash to buy a copy of the latest Harry Potter book for his estranged son, who’s living with a Christian foster family, only for his son to reject it (Harry Potter is un-Christian!), carry with them a sense of sadness - and hope. Wheelbarrow Kings follows a pair of tweakers who haul a giant TV in a broken wheelbarrow to a pawn shop, hoping it’ll score them a couple hundred bucks so they can eat AND use, only for them to find out giant tube TVs are worthless these days. But for all their wasted effort, they still manage to laugh about their stupid day. These are people who are down but not out. 

The message of the book seems to be that kindness and empathy are qualities missing from society today. People don’t treat the downtrodden of society like the human beings they are and choose to ignore them. The one exception in this collection being the excellent and funny Helpless Little Things where a con artist gets cheated out of his livelihood and gets sent to prison for taking pity on one of his workers for the first time in his life, kind of like if the Artful Dodger cheated Fagin. 

Beyond creating a thematic connection between the pieces, the most important quality any short fiction collection should have is compelling stories, and We Live In Water has plenty of those. The New Frontier follows a man who joins his friend on a mission to go to Vegas and rescue his stepsister from prostitution, a plan that goes awry and turns out to be something completely other; Virgo features a crazy editor whose girlfriend dumps him so he rigs the horoscope section of the newspaper to constantly have bad news for his girlfriend’s star sign; and Don’t Eat Cat is set in a dystopian future where fast food outlets and banks join together to form the dominant corporation that runs the world and people willingly take drugs to become actual zombies! 

As entertaining as the stories are, Walter writes about the lives of his characters with convincing detail. The narrator of Wheelbarrow Kings is constantly going through his mind how much money he needs to get high and get some fast food; the convicted banker’s behaviour of The Wolf and the Wild is as arrogant as you’d expect of someone with millions in his bank account even after serving jail time, but his attempt at redemption in the end also feels real; and Oren, the bad father of We Live in Water, for all his silly behaviour, has a genuine moment of crushing reality that lifts his story up. He goes back for his young son despite knowing that it assures his doom. 

Like every short story collection, not all of the stories here are brilliant, but most of them here are. The majority of the stories are thoughtful, sensitive portraits of real people at defining moments of their lives and they are absolutely compelling to read. Jess Walter is an outstanding writer (I highly recommend his novels Citizen Vince and The Financial Lives of the Poets) and We Live In Water is a wonderful must-read collection of humanistic and darkly humorous stories.

We Live in Water

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